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Working with Novices

Lessons Learned from ID1 students: How Working with Novices Can Help Us, the Less-Novices


In “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshmen Year”, Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz explore the ways in which first-year students enter into the discourse community of an academic institution. As Writing Fellows or ID1 interns, we have an opportunity to work with these “novice” students. However, we also get to see them as experts. What follows is a series of lessons that come from my experience as an ID1 intern in the fall of 2011. Some are about working with novices, and some are about learning from experts, but all are applicable to our work as fellows and writers.

1) Look at the underlying issues. There was a student who frequently used semicolons and wrote long sentences. We identified this as a behavior to avoid during a first draft. On her second paper, she proudly noted the reduction of semicolons, assuming the problem had been fixed. As I read, I noticed a number of commas and complex sentences. We realized that it was her attempts to cram multiple ideas into every sentence that was the issue, not the semicolons. The semicolons were a symptom, but we were able to find and address the issue at the root.

2) Assuage their fears, but give solid feedback. One student would frequently ask if I thought his paper was a disaster and always wanted to do significant rewrites. Consultations with him involved helping him find the strongest points of his essay and realize he was actually on the right track while also looking at weaknesses without making him want to scrap the paper. A number of the students I worked with were very unsure of themselves at times, which spoke to the nature of the novice writer. With each, I had to find the right way to reassure them and also help them improve.

3) Find ways to work with confidence. Another student, who coincidentally had the same name as the uncertain student, always came into the consultations confident in his papers and approaches to the task. This seems to be another condition of first-year writers who have grown complacent in their high school classes. This student would always defend his writing, which was good in that it got us to truly discuss the paper. However, I had to find a way to give feedback such that he would be receptive to it. In the end, I found that asking him about certain things and letting him talk would often lead him to recognize things on his own.

4) Be adventurous. One student always set a goal for herself that went beyond the prompt. Whether it was to argue a daring and original thesis that she wasn’t entirely comfortable with or working with a different type of data, she was always taking on tasks that pushed her as a writer. Her experiments didn’t always lead to the best grades, but this didn’t deter her. She kept trying and exploring new areas of writing. The end result was that she had fun writing the final paper and came up with something that impressed the professor with its originality.

5) Encourage autonomy. By the third assignment, the students were recognizing the things I would talk about with them. When I had them sign up for appointments, I encouraged them to make reverse outlines and come with questions. A few students jumped on this, and came in with specific points to discuss, outlines, and ideas about where they wanted to take revision. These consultations were productive in that I just listened to their ideas and offered my opinions instead of walking through the paper calling attention to what I considered weaknesses. By the final essay, almost all students came in with clear visions for revisions, and the consultations ran short as they knew where they were going and could work through my comments because they knew what I tended to focus on and they could identify their own areas to improve in.

6) Get to know them. We don’t always have time to develop a semester-long working relationship with students. If we do, however, we can get a sense of how they work, how to work with them, and helping them achieve that aforementioned autonomy is much easier. What’s more, watching the students grow from paper to paper helped me to reflect on my feedback and writing styles. I learned as much from them as they learned from me. In fact, the structure of this paper is borrowed from a student. He wrote cover letters that consisted of short, numbered lists that explained his thoughts. One stood out as the best cover letter of the semester, and it read, “1) Rewriting is much, much harder”. That was all, and yet it said everything. As fellows, we are frequently part of that rewriting process, helping students to continue what they’ve begun. This student also wrote his final essay as a fictionalized class meeting that incorporated the voices of the whole class, something I’ve also adapted for this entry. The experience working as an ID1 intern was made up of smaller experiences with each student, and each one revealed something different.

Writing Fellows and Interns are also novices. As a first-semester fellow, I am definitely a novice, yet I hope that the thing I’ve learned can be helpful to other tutors. I had to assume more authority than I have, something that David Bartholomae says is important for novice writers (143). I set a personal goal, like the student from the class, and that I wanted to pay homage to the students I’ve come to know over the course of this semester and pass on what they’ve taught me.


Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University” in When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing-Process Problems editor Mike Rose. New York: Guilford, 1985.

Sommers, Nancy and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshmen Year” in College Composition and Communication, Vol. 56, No. 1. National Council of Teachers of English