The Blessing of First Year Writing
I remember sitting in Weissberg Commons during the First Year Writing (FYW) orientation event, straining to hear my professor speaking over the hubbub of introductions between students and professors in different classes. After the obligatory introductions and awkward icebreakers, we received our first assignment as a class, to write a letter to our graduating selves. I vividly recall struggling to formulate and organize my thoughts and translate them into written words. Though I knew that this assignment would not be graded, I seemed incapable of articulating the simplest of thoughts on a piece of paper. After spending several hours I was only able to write down a few sentences. Though this experience represents the struggles involved in my FYW course, I gained a tremendous amount from FYW, and I strongly encourage all students to take this class with the utmost gravity.
"It is my experience that writing forces me to clarify, condense, and elucidate my arguments so that in the process I gain a deeper understanding of my own thoughts."
My professor started the first class in a typical fashion, reading through the syllabus and setting the course goals. He then went around the class asking us individually if we consider ourselves writers. While some students responded in a noncommittal affirmative, most students, including myself, responded with a resounding: “No.” To quell our fears, my professor proceeded to describe experiences with other students who expressed similar sentiments and subsequently improved their writing to a point where they had published papers and articles in public forums. I listened to his presentation skeptically, knowing that I would not become one of those people.
As the professor described our next assignment, I realized that my nerves were not unfounded. We would have to choose one issue on which we were yet undecided, investigate the issue, reach to a conclusion, and describe our thought process in a minimum of two pages. The paper would be due at the start of the next class, just two days later. Upon hearing this, I felt my stomach plummet. After struggling to write a few measly sentences at the orientation event, I could not imagine writing such a lengthy paper in the allotted time.
Needless to say, I spent the better part of the next two days scouring the internet for different hot-button topics to discuss, while frantically calling friends and relatives for assistance in researching, writing, and editing my paper. Through the help of certain key players who provided both technical and morale-lifting assistance, I scrambled to produce a somewhat presentable essay. Though relieved that I completed this assignment, I now felt that completing the class would prove impossible.
But alas, through many workshops on sentence structures, smooth transitions, and the process of rigorous analysis of arguments, I began to understand the dynamics of writing. Each assignment increased in length, and my stress levels continued to hover just under intolerable. Yet as I managed to rise to the challenge of each new assignment, I noticed my confidence rising.
The final hurdle of the semester arrived in the form of a feature length article on a topic of my choosing. Whereas writing a 12 page paper seemed an impossible feat at the start of the semester, it now came across as distantly attainable. I threw myself into the assignment, relentlessly researching my topic, writing into the wee hours of the night, and scouring each sentence in order to eliminate grammatical errors and refine my style. Watching my finished product roll off of the printer and caressing the crisp warm stack of papers in my hand felt nothing short of euphoric.
In hindsight, that paper was not so amazing. The writing style was a little bit choppy, the arguments somewhat contrived, and the solutions I presented were a bit naive. Rather than engaging in dialogue with my sources, I simply quoted them. Despite my best efforts at the time, I committed a few grammatical errors. But none of the essay’s shortcomings detracts from the momentous significance that this assignment played in my life. It marked my ability as a writer. Did I still need improvement? Of course. But I was now progressing steadily along a trajectory of improving my self-confidence and polishing my aptitude as a writer.
Only after taking several other writing-intensive courses can I truly appreciate what I gained from a semester of hard work in FYW. Besides for the noticeable improvement of my grade in writing courses, I can attest to improved grades in many other courses. I can produce cogent arguments and salient theses with less stress and effort than many of my peers. Not surprisingly, my oral presentations improved as well; eloquence in writing contributes to a commanding presence in speech.
Without downplaying the significance of the aforementioned items, possibly the largest benefit of the course came in the form of personal growth. It is my experience that writing forces me to clarify, condense, and elucidate my arguments so that in the process I gain a deeper understanding of my own thoughts. In this way writing has empowered me as a critical thinker across several disciplines including, but not limited to: Politics, history, philosophy, psychology, and literature.
Since completing the course, I have spoken with a variety of different people about their experiences with FYW. Some had similar experiences to mine, involving hard work and a rewarding result. However, most of the people I have spoken with simply did not put forth the necessary effort to garner any tangible improvements from the class. Whether they started out as bad writers or somewhat better writers, these people never invested the time or effort necessary to improve their writing and will not likely improve their writing skills.
To close, I would like to offer a word of encouragement to the students who are currently enrolled in a FYW section. Take advantage of this opportunity. I cannot guarantee that you will become a world-renowned writer, but with hard work you certainly will improve. At worst, you will enhance your writing; at best, you will set yourself along a life changing trajectory of growth in writing, critical thinking, and self-confidence.
I would like to thank Dr. William Lee for his hard work and dedication as my FYW teacher. Writing this article would not have been possible without his efforts both inside and beyond the classroom.