From Then to Now
by Helen Lepp Friesen, Ph.D., University of Winnipeg
I never really had any intention of being a university writing professor. Like many young graduates with an MA in English I had lofty idealistic dreams of writing the next great American novel and becoming a full time sought after writer. The fall after I graduated, a friend told me about a contract at the local university–an opening to teach Freshman Composition. With the rather self-centered reason of making a little extra money to go visit my family at Christmas, I applied and was hired to teach one session. I thought I could tolerate it for one semester. My undergraduate in Education had given me some experience in the classroom, but through my subsequent substitute teaching in Middle and High School, I had not exactly acquired any self-confidence in my teaching ability, and it was exactly because of that, I had turned to writing goals instead of teaching.
Shaking in my new high heels, I walked into the Freshman Composition class that first day thinking the students would pick me up and toss me out the door. I am not very large in stature. What magic that transpired that semester still eludes me, but I have been teaching Freshman Composition for almost 25 years and loving, almost, every minute of it. At the end of that first semester a few students shyly stayed after class and told me they were thinking of changing their major from engineering or premed to English and I thought, “What damage have I done here? Let’s maybe not get quite that carried away.”
How has my teaching changed? Advice for newbies? One thing that has not changed is my love for working with first year university students and getting them off on the right track in their university career. Everything is new for students when they get to university. They have good intentions and opportunities to make new habits if High School was a constant party or continue making good habits if they had them previously. Teaching is a creative art in itself, a living, walking, breathing book that we carry as we open the classroom door to meet a room full of readers, learners, and writers. It is like an every day exercise in improvisation because even with the most well thought out plans, you cannot anticipate the either enthusiastic or unimpressed students’ reaction or response, which in turn determines the next word or activity or altogether change in strategy.
As a Freshman Composition instructor I get to introduce the students to this new world called university, connect them to resources and each other, get them excited about research and writing before they lose enthusiasm or become cynical, equip them with the composition and presentation skills they need to be successful in university, be there to coach them when they make mistakes and help pick them up, and cheer them along the way as they learn to navigate the system.
One thing that I have changed is the number of essays I assign. As a young inexperienced instructor I assigned 12 essays per term. The students wrote nonstop, plus weekly journal entries. I graded nonstop.
Experimenting with what works and what does not work always keeps the classroom interesting. It’s good not to get into a rut. Times change, as do assignments and new mediums to explore. I am always looking for ways to turn my writing assignments into something practical that the students can use besides just handing it in for me to read. I have not written the next great American novel, yet, but maybe one of my students will.
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