Thoughts on Freshman Comp.

I teach Freshman Comp. to seniors here at the high school – they earn credit for college English and I earn a second paycheck (for each section!) from the college.  It works out well for all involved.

In this second semester, the focus is on writing about literature, and many of my students appear worried about having to take on Hamlet for their 1500-word research paper due in a couple weeks.  They’ve already signed up for their topics  – from a list of possible topics I gave them six weeks ago – and have written a paper responding to a piece of literary criticism concerning their topic.  We also spent about three weeks on the play itself.  Still, the worry is apparently there.

Here’s what I told them to assuage their fear:

1) This is Freshman Comp – I’m not expecting grad. level analysis from them in this paper. What I’m looking for is a clearly focused essay about a particular aspect of the play.  The thesis should be thoughtful and suggest the importance of their chosen topic to the play.

2) The whole purpose of Freshman Comp. is to prepare them for college-level writing, to get used to the demands and expectations that their future instructors will have.  Many of those expectations center on FOLLOWING INSTRUCTIONS.  No, you may not have to use MLA format in your upper-level chemistry classes, but you will be expected to follow some type of documentation format.  Knowing the rules of one will prepare you for others.

3) Research is READING.  Students can’t expect to spend 30 minutes on the databases and, voila, have all the sources necessary for the paper. Many of my students expect to find sources that say exactly what they want to say in their papers, but that ain’t gonna happen (and what would be the point of the paper if it did?).  The articles they find need to be read and information/ideas will have to be pulled to add to the discussion they are presenting in their papers.  It’s a time-consuming process.  Sorry if you were planning on knocking the paper out the weekend before it’s due – you’re setting yourself up for failure.

4) Your thoughts are important!  In fact, they’re the most important part of the essay.  Yes, this is a researched paper, but the research should add to your ideas, not be them.  Else, what’s the point?

5) A large part of Freshman Comp. is finding out what type of writer you are – how much time and effort needs to be invested on your part to come up with a final product that won’t be an embarrassment to you when your instructor reads it.  This is useful information to know before moving on to higher level classes.

6) Finally, that quality writing takes time. Yes, there are talented writers who can knock out engaging and clear 1000-word essays in just a couple hours, but these writers are the exception, and I often wonder what these students could produce if they did not rush through their work.  Still, most of my students dislike writing, and it shows in their essays because they approach it as a chore, and something to be done as quickly as possible in order to move on to more enjoyable pursuits.  And then they complain about their inevitable Cs and Ds.

I have  a quote on my door from Thoreau about reading, one that I pray my students read and take to heart:

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.

Substitute “writing” for “reading” and you have a pretty good idea about my philosophy of writing: it’s a skill.  Don’t use it, don’t practice it, don’t develop it  (as most students do not), and you can’t expect to be successful at it.

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