Short writing calms fears

My third semester as a graduate teaching assistant, one of the two sections of first year college writing I was assigned to teach was scheduled for 90 minutes starting at 4:15  p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.  

Nothing had prepared me for the problem I discovered the first session of that class.

The time slot attracted student athletes who needed Fridays for games and part-time local students who could adjust their work schedules to take the class. I anticipated this particular class might struggle more than most. The elimination of a third of the typical sessions would mean students would do 26 documents instead of the 39 I required from students who met three times a week. In addition, the twice-weekly students had more unavoidable demands on their time than were typical for first year students.

At the first class meeting, students, as always, filled the back seats first, with one exception: one male student took a seat at the front of the room beside the teacher’s desk. There was no one else within two seats of him. I thought he might have a vision or hearing problem.

I passed out the syllabus, gave my usual introduction about how in my writing courses everyone wrote every class period, and then asked everyone to take out a piece of paper and write for two minutes about what they hoped to get out of the class. When students bent to the task, the guy in the seat at the front broke out in a sweat and began to shake. He could barely hold on to his pen. He wasn’t acting. It was clear from his body language that he was terrified by the blank piece of paper.

I made an on-the-spot decision.

When the two minutes were up, I said, “Congratulations. You’ve just done your first timed writing.  From now on, you’ll be doing timed writing every class period so that you get used to forcing yourselves to write for short periods of time without stopping.”

Then I told students that probably none of them would go on to make their living as a writer, but that all of them would have to write. They wouldn’t have to write novels or poetry, but short, factual messages at work: a telephone message, a report about the failure of pump #2, or a request for vacation. I said I intended to prepare them for that kind of writing by requiring them to do at least one short piece of writing every class in anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes by the clock.

I said that just as what they had to write at work was about something at work, what I’d required them to do in class every class period would be related to the work they had to accomplish in the class to get a passing grade. I said I expected them to write short, factual, useful messages in a couple minutes at least once, possibly several times, during class. “I don’t expect you to produce art. I expect you to produce accurate, concise, clear messages fast. If you can do that, you will not only do well in this class, but you’ll be able to write well in your work and in other classes you take.”

Then I picked up the trash can and said, “I’m going to pass around the trash can. Unless you want me to read what you wrote or unless to keep it as a memento of this happy occasion, throw your paper in the trash. Next class, we’ll start learning how to write fast, accurately, concisely, and clearly.”

I don’t remember anything else about the guy who was initially terrified of a blank piece of paper. By the end of the semester, he exhibited no more anxiety than anyone else, and he must have done OK because no one in the class earned less than a C.