The most difficult course I ever taught was English 101, recognized by many names and course numbers as Freshman Composition. At my college, it was a transfer-level course in which the main goal was to take students’ mastery beyond the short personal-opinion essay into the realm of the research-based writing that would be required when they made the transition to four-year institutions.
Their expressions ranged from disbelief to terror when I told them that they would be writing an 8-10 page paper, properly formatted, with sources properly cited, on a subject they had researched over the course of the semester. “Oh, hell no,” I could see many of them thinking. Ten pages???? But you know what? They did it. And later, when I would run into them here and there in town, they would comment on how proud and confident it had made them to know that when they handed in their first paper at university they had done it right.
So how do Freshman Comp instructors get them there? One small step at a time. I used to tell them that we can always perceive a problem in a way that makes it too big to take on. We can also break it down into little, solvable ones. Can they research their whole topic? Way too scary, but they can research a tiny piece of it, maybe just the answer to one little question they have about it.
Can they write ten pages? That’s practically a book to some of them. But can they write one paragraph on some part of their subject they are confident they understand? Easy. Then can they write another? Everyone writes that way—one word, sentence, paragraph, page at a time. The difference as we mature as writers is partly stronger skills but the biggest change is in our confidence that we can handle any writing task put to us. We get to that level of confidence one accomplishment at a time.
This morning I waited for my ferry from Hvar to Split, Croatia next to this sculpture of a contemplative young girl. Maybe she made me a little contemplative too, as I started writing this post on the ferry an hour or so later.
It’s a long way in space and time from here to those Freshman Comp classes I taught, but I realized the process and the lesson are the same. When I decided to travel on my own for seven weeks, using only public transportation, in places I hadn’t been, where they speak languages I don’t understand, I’ll admit I was intimidated. The whole idea of being confronted with an unfamiliar train station or a bus depot or a ferry port, hauling a suitcase that, despite my success in whittling down to one medium sized bag, is still heavy and cumbersome—well, it kind of freaked me out.
And here’s where my past teaching experience came back to help me with a lesson I had once taught to others. I don’t have to think about everything I will have to do on this journey. Today, I just had to get on this ferry. Then when I get to port, I have to find a cab that will take me to my hotel. Over and done for a few days. Then I can do something similar when I travel to the next place, and the next. I’ve seen a few spots on my itinerary where I have made it harder on myself than I needed to, so I changed the plan. I’ve added, subtracted, tweaked, and thoroughly revised at least a dozen times to make this trip something to rejoice in every step of the way.
I can do this. And here’s more proof: I am posting this from my bed in my hotel in Split. I did today without a hitch. I will do tomorrow and the next day too. Call me Travelwoman!