The Freshmen Writing Phobia

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by Nania Lee

All eighteen students in my College Writing course this fall showed up prepared and on-time for their 15-minute, one-on-one meetings with me during week three of the semester.  I had a short list of questions for them — what’s your intended major? do you like to write? and what are your goals for this course?  Now, many would say there’s no point in asking a Freshman about their major, as it’s likely to change at least once before the end of this….sentence.  (…and several times throughout their college careers.) But it’s the way in which they answered — their delivery and the words they used, that helped me see past the student to get glimpses of the writer.

Their answers varied, but many of them had a common tone:  “I’m going to work on Capitol Hill so I’m majoring in Political Science and Minoring in International Studies”… “I’m getting into Ross [UM’s very prestigious and competitive pre-business program] and then I’ll be an I-Banker” … “Pre-Med. I’ll probably be a doctor but I’d like to try out surgery to see which one I like better.”

I loved their confidence.  Many of them spoke in firm declaratives about their futures and felt their paths were hammered in stone. Bold, brave, and ready to take college by the horns — my Freshmen were gunning for success.  But with the very next question, these first-year lions turned into lambs.

So, do you enjoy writing? You can be honest. It’s okay if you don’t. 

“Writing? Oh, um, no. Well, N-not really. I’m just not very good.  And it’s not fun to do something you suck at.”

“Are you kidding? I’d rather fall head first off my bike than write a paper.”

“No. I’ve written a lot for school but I never get better. It’s just too hard. It’s not like I want to avoid all hard things in life, but I tried it and I’m pretty much sure writing is not my thing.”

Their modes of delivery were unique, but the messages were the same.  About 14 of the 18 students who filtered through my office hours admitted to a fear of writing — a fear that for most of them began early in high school and had four years to incubate and become an all-out avoidance (and even a hatred!) for the craft.  Several of them indicated that they’d basically checked it off their list of academic interests and (politely) laughed at the possibility of choosing it as a major or minor.

But what I’ve forgotten to mention in this blog is that by the time one-on-one meetings rolled around, these students had already turned in their first paper for the semester, an assignment I called, “The Personal Impact of a Public Event.”  Each student was asked to select an event that held some significance to them: changed the way they viewed themselves, the world, their families, etc.  And although these first essays were certainly not ready for publication…(and of course were not expected to be)… one thing became apparent: the very same students who sat in my office and said they “sucked” at writing, feared it, hated it…. many of them wrote with glints of pathos, rhythm, voice, style, humor, narrative momentum, creativity.  They were swollen with the potential to be talented writers… and they had no friggin’ idea.

So I started to wonder… when and where did this fear of writing begin?  How did this insidious seed of doubt and insecurity get planted in these students?  Is the phobia merely innate to most people? Or is there something about “the system” that leads bright young students to so easily believe they are terrible, inept writers?

Throughout the semester, the students worked their butts off — filtering in and out of office hours, sending emails timestamped at 2AM so they could run a newly problematized thesis by me… making delightfully out-of-control outlines and “thought-webs” that required two pieces of paper to be taped together… And after a few serious grammatical facelifts and a couple truly re-visioned revisions, these students started turning out some pretty impressive work; stuff that made me think, challenged some of my own beliefs, and helped me see important social issues through a modified lens.  One student addressed the issue of removing potatoes from public school lunches by writing a thoughtful, well-researched, and kind of romantic love letter to the “wrongfully targeted and victimized spud.” Another student wrote a very convincing piece about the history of high fashion and its dismal evolution from a mode of self-expression into just another way to alienate “outsiders.” One student even made me feel pangs of sincere sympathy for…. God forgive me…. Michael Vick.

Now, I don’t want to be too plucky here… there were, of course, some students who said writing just wasn’t their “thing” and by the end of the semester… their feelings (and their writing) changed minimally. But I was surprised by how difficult it was to convince these otherwise confident students of their strengths. Many accused me of “just being nice” when I said their paper impressed me, showed improvement, or taught me something new.  (Trust me, some of the stuff you guys turned in was not pretty… and I think my comments reflected that.) So although I can’t offer any practical answers to the questions I’ve posed about the writing phobia and its origins, I’ll say…. it seems largely unfounded… and I fear it’s becoming a silent, uncontrolled epidemic.

I have no solutions right now, but for what it’s worth, all you college freshmen (and anybody else who’s still reading this post): you may very well be a heinous writer, but I have a sneaking suspicion you’re not giving yourself enough credit. And I know a group of really bright students who *I think* have conquered this phobia and  could write you a damn good paper convincing you to give writing a chance.

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