On Being a New Writing Fellow in a First-Year Interest Group

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By Molly Rentscher.  As my first semester in the Writing Fellows program reaches a half-way point, I find myself reflecting on the rewards and challenges of being a Writing Fellow. I am thrilled by the overwhelmingly positive experiences the program has provided me and quite frankly, how much fun I am having. The course for which I fellow is a First-Year Interest group (FIG): a “learning community” of about 20 students who are enrolled in a cluster of three classes that are linked by a common theme. As a new Writing Fellow in a Literature in Translation FIG course, I feel as though I have not only been initiated into a peer mentoring program, but a unique writing community of first-year students.

As a freshman at UW–Madison, I turned down the opportunity to join a FIG, lacking information about the program. Now as a fourth-year senior, I am nearly certain that if I had taken advantage of this service my freshman year, I would have formed more lasting friendships since FIGs allow new freshmen to meet students with similar interests. Seeing as FIG students work and study together, and subsequently share ideas, I am convinced that I would have also flourished intellectually. This impression is further confirmed by my high regard for Professor Scott Mellor’s liveliness and ability to connect with students in meaningful ways. Perhaps most importantly though, my experience as a Writing Fellow in a FIG has made me more aware of just how important it is for first-year students to access intimate educational settings within a larger university setting.

FIGs are commendable for their stress on community-building. Whenever my co-Fellow and I visit the class to hear Professor Mellor’s lectures, I am invigorated by the student’s and professor’s energetic interaction and cooperation, and I consequently examine the communities to which I belong. I leave class feeling motivated to meditate on my relationship with my co-Fellow, the Writing Fellows program, the Literature in Translation students, and, most spectacularly, learning. I feel fortunate to be a part of something that so elaborately gives life to the program’s belief that collaboration among student peers is an especially effective mode of learning: learning to write, learning the course material, and learning about each other and the power inherent in community.

Not to mention the pizza parties that the FIG organizes, which complement the cooperative learning environment . . .

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While I have fun with students inside and outside of the classroom, I am equally excited that I have been able to implement ideas that I’m learning in English 316: Seminar on Tutoring Writing Across the Curriculum (a course for new Writing Fellows). In preparation for and the conduction of student conferences, I often intuitively recall literature and ideas generated in class. For example, Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz talk about how first-year students can better fashion themselves as authorities even though they often feel as though they don’t have the “depth of knowledge to write about anything substantial.”  When it’s appropriate in my conferences with students, I urge them to trust their intuitions when writing their way into roles of expertise. I’ve also found that in alliance with my first-year writing struggles, students often have a difficult time understanding how pieces of information relate to each other and which pieces are most important. When given tools for revision, such as visual diagrams and outlines, students can examine writing structure and provide answers to many of their own questions. In my attempts to facilitate discovery and even share my own writing experiences with them, I hope to not only convince students that they are legitimate members of the university community, but that they might “get something” other than a grade by thinking critically and insightfully.

Although communicating higher-order concerns and delivering praise are important practices to develop as a new Writing Fellow, I remind myself that comments, and especially the conference, should be viewed as an opportunity to support enthusiasm about academic culture at large. Every conference is an opportunity to establish the student’s confidence that through writing, she/he has the opportunity to “give” something to me, the professor(s), and the greater academic community. This will not only generate a sense of academic belonging, but will allow students to become more eager about writing and the writing process.

Since my acceptance into the Writing Fellows program, I continue to feel honored to be a part of a tutoring program with such intellectual, personable, and respectable faculty. However, I did not anticipate inheriting the opportunity to play an active role in creating meaningful first-year experiences for students as they grow as writers and learners. For this, I am grateful and inspired.

–Molly Rentscher, Undergraduate Writing Fellow, UW-Madison

4 thoughts on “On Being a New Writing Fellow in a First-Year Interest Group

  1. I really like what you’re saying about establishing your students’ confidence. It hadn’t occurred to me to approach it so directly (pointing out that their intuition is good, etc). It seems like a great idea, and I think it could be really helpful with upperclassmen as well as younger students. I know personally I still find myself writing on topics of which I’m unsure as a senior, so reestablishing confidence is usually really helpful for me. My students might be experiencing the same thing, so I think I’ll give your approach a try!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and insights, Molly! I really enjoyed reading your post. The Writing Fellows Program is lucky have you join its ranks.

    Keep up the excellent work!

  3. I enjoyed hearing about your experiences as a WF so far this semester. It’s interesting how you say that you’ve been able to help students realize they have a voice in the greater academic conversations they address with their writing. I did not really think of WFs as being able to offer this confidence to writers, but I think you make a good point that some students really need people in a college setting (especially a big one like UW) to tell them that their ideas matter.

  4. I agree with what you said about the FIG program. I wish I had understood what exactly it was as a freshman as well. FIGs create an incredible learning environment for freshman, many of whom might be overwhelmed by the campus. I am also working with a FIG class this semester, and I think partnering the Writing Fellow’s program with the FIG has helped the students to take the Writing Fellow process more seriously than they may have done otherwise.

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