Debilitating Fear

The first essay assignment that I ask my freshman composition students to complete is a response to the course syllabus. This is also the first time that they admit how much fear they are carrying with them into my classroom.

My syllabus is VERY long. The primary goal is to make the class and my teaching philosophy as transparent as possible. When I was still printing a syllabus, it was typically 13 pages long (single sided). Now that it is available online (also known as a liquid syllabus) it is even longer. The syllabus provides multiple categories and a table of contents for each page.

My syllabus isn’t about rules and regulations; it’s about the information they need to access learning and support services, to understand the expectations of the course, and to learn how to become successful college students.

The syllabus response essay asks students to react to the course expectations and to determine how the course will support their personal and professional goals.

The most prominent reaction students have, no matter their age or previous experiences, is a near debilitating fear of the course. They are afraid of their lack of punctuation, writing, and class participation skills. For many, mine is their first college English class they have ever taken. They arrive (either face-to-face or online) terrified of who I might be. They are terrified that I will judge them, that they will fail, that they won’t be able to keep up with the work.

Honestly, it is a wonder that they attend at all!

Then I think back on the attitudes of former colleagues (who have long since retired), and I understand the fear.

One multi-decade veteran would begin the first day of every class with the announcement that “A third of you won’t pass this class.”

Another gave any paper an automatic “F” if there were more than 3 surface errors on the first page of any essay.

Some former colleagues used to grouse about the fact that it wasn’t their job to “make students love literature.”

One gem made a student cry in the Writing Center by pointing out every single instance she repeated a mistake in her paper, and told her she had a learning disability. BTW, he was not qualified to make that assessment, and it was essentially illegal for him to do so.

There exists a very old English department handbook in my office. One official descriptor of a poorly written student paper is: “A disaster.”

I arrived in academia as the barrier attitude, the student deficit mindset, was beginning to fade. Slowly the departments I worked in were looking for ways to increase student success instead of amassing tricks to push students out. The tide was turning away from the view that not all students could succeed, that they had a right to fail, and that dropping or failing them ultimately made the classes smaller and our jobs easier.

But students don’t know any of this. They don’t know that we have spent the last several years revising our courses and our teaching. They don’t know that we are hard at work creating anti-racist and equity minded curriculum as well as working on becoming more culturally competent. They believe that we sit in our ivory towers and look down on them, our eyes and red pens full of judgement.

One response to “Debilitating Fear”

  1. I wish I could take your class. I may think I know the English language well, but oh- the things I’d learn from you! I’d welcome the corrections and comments with glee, Ginny. We are here to learn, I believe you would help me with that in the best way possible.


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