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Emilie Menzel




In my First-Year Composition courses, I constantly remind my students: writing is messy. We have to remember, I tell them, that if we are truly learning something new about language, something that pushes our ideas, we will be uncomfortable for a bit, we will fail a few times. Often if presented without contextualization, a student’s writing progress can be mistaken for writing crash-and-burn: these sentences are rambling, the ideas are unorganized, this thought is incomplete. Yet, the similarity between writing progress and writing errors makes sense. In writing, we try, fail, and rebuild with what was able to stay standing. We build many walls that get knocked down. If you are uncomfortable, if you are flailing, you’re moving somewhere.


I thus teach my First-Year Composition courses by the philosophy that to learn to be an effective writer is to learn to be comfortable with failure and risks. At the beginning of the semester, many of my freshmen writers find “failure” in writing (scare quotes because failure is scary) overwhelmingly daunting. And why wouldn’t they enter with this negative perception of failure in writing and in general? They’ve spent their entire schooling lives learning to associate failure with points off on a test, not passing a class, a low score on the SAT, a grade that keeps them out of college. For them, to fail results in punishment. For them, failure is something you avoid, not seek out. While I certainly understand the value of using such grading systems and am not here arguing for their removal, I do wish to note that the result of this system is that students enter First-Year Composition courses as tepid writers unable to begin to write or edit or take risks in their writing because they fear having the “wrong” thesis, the “wrong” sentences,” the “wrong” essay. They are trained to find the “right” way to do a task. While this is an admirable skill in many scenarios, I question how these students can ever write with true control if their work remains guided by fear. I do not aim to craft my First-Year Composition courses around learning how to build tidy little essay boxes; I do not wish to teach writing to teach containment. I am teaching writing to help my students understand that the boxes in which they and myself are currently standing can be unfolded and rebuilt to better support and structure our ideas. In my own teaching, I work to practice engagement with the productive qualities of failure.


In the classroom, I encourage messy writing through a few angles. First, I work to position myself as a fellow writer in the classroom. I do this through the casual and open tone with which I speak to the students, participating in the class activities, and sharing my own writing with the students. In my classroom, we are all learning to write and we are all having to take the risk of sharing our work. Seeing me as more of an equal in the classroom helps my students recognize that failure is not a mistake in the writing process, that it is expected and used as an opportunity.


It’s also worth noting that as I am a poet, my sharing writing in the course gives me an extra chance to incorporate creative writing readings and writing exercises into the course structure. Through exposure to creative writing within the context of a non-fiction, mostly academic essay course, my students discover additional elements of language over which they have control, ways language can bend that they didn’t realize it could, different approaches to writing that may suit them and their needs better than a more traditional academic essay approach. There are paths other than climbing over the mountain of writing an essay. Not everybody is a mountain climber. Some are hikers. Some are tunnelers. Some are birds.

An additional way I encourage messy writing: I use contract grading in order to help my students take risks in their writing without fear that their grade will be penalized if their writing experiments don’t land perfectly. So long as the students attend class regularly, submit their work on time, make substantial edits when appropriate, and are actively engaged in the course material, they receive A-’s. I find that the contract grading system helps give my students the space they need to go through the messy stage of writing development and arrive at the other end as confident writers.


My last approach to encouraging enjoyment of messy writing that I’ll mention: I provide my students with many opportunities to write in large quantities with low-stakes. The more my students are given time to produce writing they know they won’t be turning into me for a grade, the less make-or-break each piece of writing feels and the less pressure my students put on themselves to land their essay perfectly the first time around. Additionally, writing regularly and in large quantities helps strengthen students’ confidence with and practice in perhaps the riskiest step of writing of all: simply beginning. What’s more, frequent, un-critiqued writing gives my students opportunities to see the process of writing itself as a way of working through ideas, that the goal of writing does not always have to be clear writing, that writing can be important for the experience it provides and not for the written product it produces.


In my teaching, I work to craft a First-Year Composition course that helps my students think about language flexibly, take risks in their writing, and thus practice thinking independently. If my students can grow comfortable with allowing themselves failures, they grow comfortable with allowing themselves to build from their failures, and thus begin to see language as something that can be played and adapted to their own purposes. They begin to see language as a way to offer forward their own ideas and voices. Language is a weapon, and we must learn how to wield it. If we have the chance, we must speak, and I want to teach my students how to carry the courage to do so.

Desk Scene
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