On “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year”

This is the third in a series written for the Writing Blog by Ryan Sheldon ’13.

I encountered a wealth of interesting material in the Ford Seminar over the course of last semester, but no single examination of the development of young writers has proven as gripping as Nancy Sommers’s and Laura Saltz’s “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.”* Under the auspices of the Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing, Sommers and Saltz examined a particular group of Harvard students over the course of their undergraduate careers in the hopes of tracing patterns of growth among different kinds of writers. What they found was that students who approached the endeavor of writing passionately and humbly exhibited the most remarkable development during their undergraduate years—a conclusion that, while not entirely surprising in hindsight, was spiritually and methodologically affirming from a tutorial perspective.

As Sommers and Saltz observe, the psychological phenomenon of displacement encountered by freshmen during the transition to college life can be traumatic and unsettling. This change in domestic settings is far from seamless, and freshmen often find themselves located in a vague, interstitial emotional space that is no longer truly connected to their homes but is not entirely separate from them either (this was certainly the case for me). So too with academic venues: the norms and rhythms of high school are done away with, and the absence of that familiarity can be just as discomfiting as any conventional kind of homesickness. It is natural, then, that a massive sense of validation comes with the first fruits of a student’s academic labor; the authors of this study observed that they were “unprepared for the pride of accomplishment that many freshmen experience, the joy of holding in their hands the physical representation of their thinking, the evidence that they have learned something in-depth.” For me, this sensation was all too familiar—finding that I could produce legitimate and respectable work at the collegiate level was one of the most important realizations of my freshman year.

“The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year” exhaustively explores this process of academic self-location through in-depth writing, noting that the study’s most successful students were those who were able to marry personal investment in their projects with a genuine interest in the analytical perspectives offered by academic writing. If there is one universal and especially salient quality among the various modes of academic approach and acculturation discussed in the piece, it’s engagement—both the close positioning of oneself to source material and the active use of writing as a means to deeper comprehension of that material. We understand this to be an ongoing process; Sommers and Saltz note one of student: “He was able to move forward with his writing because he learned to ask questions that mattered to him and to others—to have both a personal and intellectual stake in these questions.”

The same can be said of reading—it’s most formative and valuable when it inspires both personal interest and sustained intellectual engagement. If I have one quibble to lodge with the authors of this study, it’s that they did not address the newness of ways in which students are required to interact with texts after high school. For me, the task of reading as I performed it in high school was not highly portable; I effectively had to relearn how to approach texts in the first place, and this process of reconditioning has greatly informed the way I’ve approached my writing. The ways in which we explore source material—how assiduously we study it, how we situate it in disciplinary contexts, and perhaps most importantly, how we relate to it personally—inform the character of our academic inquiries. They affect us as readers and writers alike. This begs the questions: how (and what) ought we read in post-secondary academic settings, and how do those choices ramify in terms of our writing? In the near future, I’ll attempt to address these questions and more by exploring some of today’s sharpest dialogue on the subject of contemporary collegiate literary education. And luckily, these are questions I can pose to all of you readers and my next batch of interviewees…

*Sommers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” College Composition and Communication . 56.1 (2004): 124-149. Print.

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