An Open Letter to the New Writing Fellows

It’s been busy for the Writing Fellows Program, and I’m pleased that our annual recruiting of new Fellows has come to a satisfying end.  We received 70 applications and at the end of last week—after a round of face-to-face interviews—our director, Emily Hall, sent congratulatory emails to the 28 undergraduates who will join the program in the fall.

The process of reading applications and interviewing candidates has been bittersweet for me, since I’m graduating and leaving the program this semester.  I’m very excited for the new Fellows and the adventures that await them, but disappointed that I won’t get to know them. Since I can’t resist offering a few last gems of Assistant Director didacticism, the letter that follows is meant to caution, but uplift.  I hope it’s useful to its intended audience.

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Dear new Fellows,

Congratulations!  You submitted superb applications, garnered praise from those who wrote you letters of recommendation, and survived the interview.  You are now Writing Fellows.  Next fall, you will join a cohort of passionate and intense students who hail from across the university, and (you will observe) your combined talents are staggering.  As Fellows, you have assumed a position of great responsibility: the role of peer mentor, in which you will guide other undergraduates to fuller expression of their ideas and greater self-possession of and conviction in their skills as writers.  You are also the beneficiaries of the tradition of knowledge and dedication for which this program is known, and which, I hope, will change you profoundly.

Over the next few months, you will learn a great deal about fellowing, and what it means to be a Fellow.  You will likely be overwhelmed at times, and confused, and perhaps skeptical.  You will experience disorientation when trying to find the bathroom on the sixth floor of Helen C. White Hall.  You will think about writing all the time, whether you want to or not.  You may find yourself praying that you don’t mess up.  All of this is natural.  You will make your way more nimbly if you try to remember—and do—the following:

It’s fine not to know everything all at once.  Really.  Writing studies, the teaching of writing, and peer tutoring are all subfields in a specialized and amorphous discipline called Composition and Rhetoric.  No one will expect you to arrive well-versed in the literature, to know the jargon, or to discern every nuance, and pretending you know more than you do will be an obstacle to your learning (not that I’m speaking from experience, or anything).  This is a field that champions questioning and exploration; the Fellows classroom and the experience of tutoring are dynamic facets of an epistemology of discovery in which openness to the new, the innovative, and the unknown are rewarded.  In fact, if your impulse might ordinarily be to say, “I already know this,” it might be worth asking instead, “Are there other ways of knowing this?” or “What don’t I already know?” or simply, “Why?”  Of course, you’ll be expanding your vocabulary and knowledge of the field by reading, which is why:

You can never read enough.  You will get more than enough reading in English 316, truly.  But I’d advise to read as much as possible, both the canonical literature and the most recent scholarship.  Read articles by experts in the field, and read articles by other undergraduate tutors.  Read online journals and the list of classes the Writing Center offers each semester, and don’t forget to ask why the journals’ subject matter is trending one way or another, and why the WC offers the classes it does.  Ask your co-fellows if you can read challenging student papers, both the good ones and those that pose tricky issues for tutoring.  Even if you can’t read more than what’s assigned, read deeply and forge connections with others over the material.  You are now part of our community, and reading and discussing will help you feel at home.

We want you to succeed.  All the Writing Fellows administrators, those in the Writing Center, every WC TA, and all professors who work with Fellows know you can rise to the challenge, but no one expects you to go it alone.  They are part of your support network, and you should be unafraid to ask for their help, especially in that first semester.  Don’t overlook your commenting mentor, whose advice will be invaluable as you tackle your first set of drafts and prepare for those first conferences.  And look to the experienced Fellows for their insight and encouragement: they all remember what it was like to be new.  Your support network will help alleviate some of your anxiety, and allow you to blow off steam.  They will sympathize, but they will also offer a gentle reminder that

Ultimately, it’s about more than you.  The Writing Fellows Program exists to help students participate more actively in their educations, take control of their writing process, and develop strategies for communicating and refining their ideas.  As a Fellow you are integral to this mission, of course, but the program has no purpose without the students.  Keeping this perspective might be difficult when you’re feeling overworked and a tiny bit unloved, but a spirit of service is vital to all that we do and it is powerful to be a part of a transformative movement on this campus.

In retrospect, this letter is deficient in shrewd tips to make fellowing a breeze, though from reading your applications and meeting you, I don’t believe that any of you are suckers for quick fixes.  I do think that you already know that with this program, if you put a lot in you’ll get a lot out.  And I hope that you do.

I wish you all the best for the summer and your tenure as Writing Fellows.  Please be gentle with my successor.

–mitch

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