Serving up Freshman

No Telling

There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
– Douglas Adams

I won’t pretend to be philosophical tonight. My eyes hurt to much from grading and commenting on my first batch of freshman comp papers. Some of them are quite good. Some could stand another rewrite. A few others make me want to hunt down their previous school districts and have a talk with someone in charge of curriculum.

This is nothing new. Freshman composition is the great levelizer. Students come from subdivisions and trailer parks, farm roads and apartments to push hopefully toward some larger imagining of themselves. They’re scared. They’re pressured. They’re free. Regardless of their previous schooling, they all need to clear the same bar by Christmas.

It’s not an easy thing to go from big ‘ol catfish to minnow in a pond where you can’t quite see the bottom. Sometimes my students write about this transition and I can tell that the act of writing it is part of the larger process of growing. I like those papers. They’re spring from a variety of topics, but all of them center around an awareness of change.

Write your way through it, I tell them, find out where you’re going and the essay will follow you there. Here, try this.

There are other papers, the ones students think they’re supposed to write about topics too distant from their experience. In high school they wrote research papers with titles like “World War II” and received glowing scores. Some only want to write about my Forbidden Topics – cloning, abortion, gay marriage, global warming, any war – because they assume all writing is a large undertaking suitable only for weighty subjects. They want to begin with answers instead of questions.

Some argue that eighteen year-olds don’t have enough personal experiences to write about. It’s true, some don’t. They will, though, and soon enough. In the meantime, we weigh out the miracle and frustration of the everyday.

As I sit here with this half-graded pile of papers, there seems to be a sort of developmental rite of passage either crossed or not. Some are ready for what comes next, others need more time to cook.

For our second paper, I’ll adjust the temperature a bit.

18 thoughts on “Serving up Freshman

  1. I remember my first Freshman Comp class. At first my teacher was ecstatic, because she thought I was such a good writer. She became quickly and understandably frustrated because all I wrote about was LGBT issues, haha. She was like, Nate, I understand you are gay, and you've been through a lot… but thats not ALL of who you are. Although at the time that is the biggest bridge in my life that I had successfully crossed… and its true what you said… soon after I started to experience more of life's experiences, and growing from it. I appreciate the educators that I have had almost as much as my parents, because they all have had such an crucial part in my personal growth. Thank you, Monda, you are doing a great thing. =]

  2. I'd present them with a topic that is like, WHABAM!! No big things. Write something different, something about the small things in life you've experienced. And then if they still manage to turn it into a paper about how mommy and daddy didn't love them enough and war, smack em with the whole stack.

    And isn't it funny how we're supposedly moving toward a paperless society, yet you have 129317293130 papers to grade? ;]

  3. When you are 18 ordinary life is just so boring. So why write about it.

    I guess it's a case of “I have nt experienced anything yet so will only have my imagination”

    Why imagine normality

  4. LOL, you´re really bringing back my teaching days. Now I´m thinking about the time I assigned term papers–the LAST time I assigned traditional term papers. One of the papers I got was something I HAD WRITTEN as a grad student. I just about choked laughing. I asked myself if this student was dumber than a stone or if she thought I was just dumber than a stone…it turned out to be a little of both.

    The dean of students had a good chuckle too!

    I love your blog.

  5. And look at you now, Nathanael – Scribbling away on a blog that's not even assigned! Students simply need to write their way across each bridge. The world is always smaller and larger than we think. By the way, I'd let YOU write a paper on war any day.

    Julia, I imagine you were never a one-trick pony in writing class. Paperless? Not in a composition class. Not yet. The emails would kill me outright.

    A lot happens in that freshman year, doesn't it Diggestive? They change so much from the first semester to the second that I hardly recognize them.

    Kate, that made me laugh out loud! I'm telling everyone in the hall that one this morning. Most of the time plagiarism isn't funny at all, but that one's too good to keep a straight face!

  6. It's so true about the lack of life experience in an eighteen year old but there's always something to write about, if the time is taken to really think it through. Personally speaking, when I was that age, I was scared poop-less to give my opinion/thoughts on anything for fear of being mocked or accused of having no original thoughts. I am definitely within the “need more time to cook” group and being so, it's taken me twice the lifespan of your students to seriously consider going back to university to finish off what I started. I now have way more experience and confidence that I feel I could be successful…I just wished I pulled my head out of my, well, you get the picture, sooner. Best of luck with your students!

    Great quote from Douglas Adams. I'm just about to get into his Hitchhiker's series (I'm assuming that's where it's from?). Everywhere I look these days, I find reference to his work.

  7. I wrote one solid paper in high school, 10 pages on the Bubonic Plague.
    In college, I clepped out of Writing I and II, and wrote 5 smaller papers and one major paper in a psych class. For my senior seminar class, I made a quilt, no paper involved.
    As a graduate student, I can't help but feel a little slighted at my limited experience in writing. Makes me want to turn back time.

  8. Ah, the temp goes up, CSIowa. I just keep stoking the fire.

    And best of luck in YOUR studies, Jackie. I'm thrilled you've gone back. Douglas Adams, by the way, is highly quotable.

    Thanks, Steven!

    Ten pages on the bubonic plague. There's a grading moment, Sally. As a graduate student, there are all sorts of assumptions made about your previous writing experience – as a CLEP Sister the same thing happened to me. We all march double-time in grad school, don't we?

  9. Diggestive, nothing is normal. Nothing is experienced precisely the same way twice.

    This may sound silly to you, but this morning as kiddo sat on the sofa gnawing tiny blueberry waffles that came out of a box with Cookie Monster on it, I heard Sesame Street's Bert sing a song that spoke to me with perfect clarity. He sang, “Have you ever looked at a paper clip, I mean really stopped to look? …Anyone can look at a rainbow, anyone can look at the sky. To see that those things are pretty, you don't really have to try.”

    Word ver: pologth: goth polo players (who all ride black horses and don't really try to hit the ball because, who cares, we're all gonna die anyway).

  10. Monda, I didn't have to take freshman comp in college – can you believe it? I envy your students their experience. If they don't see it as a treasure now, odds are they will. Nice mention of your writing prompts Web site on India Flint's site.

  11. I can't wait for my first writing class, I hope I have a teacher like you. I remember my first experiences writing about real life. I was terrible. But my teachers persevered, and now writing is up in my top three things to do, along with reading and the internet.

    And the Douglas Adams quote, one of my favorites.

  12. Olivander, I love that you quote Bert.

    Oh Nancy, I didn't take freshman comp either. In fact, almost everyone I teach with tested out of it in some way or other. I need to go thank India – thanks for the heads-up!

    I wish you all the scribbling joy in the world, Real Girl. I hope you're buying scads of pretty journals and filling them up. And don't throw any writing away – even if you hate it. It's better than a photograph.

  13. At 18 I really thought I knew everything and I didn't have trouble making this known to people, whether it was my parents or my writing profs. I can probably attribute my good grades in those early writing classes to that arrogant confidence. I can also attribute a lot of hard lessons to that big head with an even thicker shell.

    The hardest lesson of all: I don't know everything and never will.

    Now that I've gotten over myself, I love the fact that I get to learn new things every day. It keeps life interesting.

  14. That's funny – I knew everything at eighteen too. Easily the Smartest Girl Alive, I did all manner of harm to myself. There's something quite freeing about getting over ourselves.

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