Fear & First Year Comp: How to keep the candle burning

Fear & First Year Comp: How to keep the candle burning

Wendesday night I participated in a weekly Twitter chat for instructors of first year composition called #FYCchat.  One of my cyber colleagues, Charles Trapunski (@aplusadvantage on Twitter), tweeted something I’ve been thinking about a lot this semester, “Fear snuffs out good writing.”

So true.

But while most instructors would agree that fear is bad–it stifles good writing–do we all agree on what causes fear in the first place? In order to help our students overcome their fears, we must first know where their fears are coming from.

Some instructors might argue that too heavy a focus on the rules and process of writing is what makes students fearful: fearful of doing things incorrectly, of receiving a bad grade, or of disappointing the instructor.  But I disagree.  I believe it is the fear of the unknown that “snuffs out good writing,” and rules make the unknown knowable.

For most of this semester I’ve been unable to relate to the fears and insecurities my students have about writing.  After all, I write *gasp* for fun! 

Then I started trying to decorate our house.  I have been an anxious mess ever since.  What colors do I start with?  What patterns go together? How are the curtains supposed to hang?  How big should the rugs be, compared to the size of the room? How should I arrange the furniture?  I assume that there must be rules for all of this, but I have not learned them.

When people try to encourage me by saying things like, “Just go with what you like, and it will all come together,” the anxiety does not cede.  I appreciate friends’ attempts to help, but as a decorating novice, I need something more concrete than that.   I think to myself, there must be a process.  But not knowing what that process is, I am lost.

It finally dawned on me last week while hanging curtains in anticipation of the arrival of out-of-town guests–THIS is how my students feel.  

Afraid, insecure, overwhelmed and anxious. Not knowing where to begin, and quickly doubting if the courage to start is ever mustered. Having the ability to notice when something doesn’t look right, but not knowing why, or how to fix it.


If only I had more than the occasional viewing of Design Star on HGTV to guide me — a book of decorating do’s and don’t’s — I might be OK.

Thankfully our students do have a guide: us.  Sometimes I might get frustrated when my students seem to robotically follow the pattern I’ve laid out for them, or take my suggestions as commands.  But I need to remember, this is how we all learn.  Once we internalize the rules, then we can begin to think about how to break them.

I’ve tried different strategies to help some of my more fearful students. I thought one-on-one pep talks might work.  I encouraged one student so much that I might as well have been dressed up in a purple and white cheerleading uniform chanting, “You can do it,” over and over and doing roundoffs on the basketball court of my old high school gym.

This same student has yet to hand in a writing assignment.  She regularly attends class and participates in classroom discussions, but she is completely stymied by her fear of writing.  My cheerleading strategy?  Give it an “F.”

One of my other theories about building confidence and minimizing fear in my students–repetition and practice–has had questionable results, too.

My students write in every class.  I was convinced that this regular exercise would help my students become more comfortable with the writing process and overcome their writing phobias.   (My husband is a baseball coach; I ought to believe in practice).  Problem is, I can’t really tell if this strategy has been successful.

What I do know is that I have several students who will sit in front of a white page for a solid ten minutes because their fear of writing is so great that they can’t even write something that I may never read, and certainly will never grade.

I am beginning to think that the solution to fear is not cheerleading or daily journaling. After all, pep-talks and practice haven’t helped me decorate my house.

I’m becoming convinced that the remedy is rules.  Not just rules about grammar and mechanics.  Rules that state that theses should always make a point and guidelines on how to generate ideas and organize a paper. Really, a validation of what we are already doing in first year comp–teaching the basics! 

The rules of writing do not hamper creativity, hinder students and increase fear. The rules release; they provide the foundation for students’ ability to believe in themselves, and ultimately, to write well. 

Now, if someone could just tell me where to find the handbook for having the perfect home, I would be cured, too .

{How do you overcome your fears? How do you help your students overcome theirs?}

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  1. Thank you! I was tired of trying to convince people that writing within the rules (or assignment guidelines) does not create robotic automatons devoid of any and all independent though.

    My students just did an essay where they all had the same guidelines and novel to write about. Heck, the subject was the same for everyone. But, I have 20 different thesis statements looking at the exact same thing. How is that stiffing their creativity?

  2. Kelly Potter says:

    Heather I am like you, I loved my writing classes and had no problem coming up with something to put down on paper!
    I don’t understand not being able to come up with anything at all. Whatever your subject is, think about that subject, jot down your personal thoughts on that subject, then take those thoughts and rewrite them into sentences, then turn the sentences into paragraphs. It helps to have someone in your life who is educated enough to check your work before handing it in. That person for me was a judge that I work with, but I am proud to say he never found too many errors!
    The more papers I wrote, the better I got. I always got an “A” in my writing classes, but I always enjoyed those classes, which makes a big differenc. I had a wonderful teacher who I do not believe is at TRCC anymore, her name is Nadine Black I believe (it’s been a few years).

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