Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz, "The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year"


In her paper The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year, Nancy Sommers attempts to investigate the writing students complete in their freshman year in hopes of pinpointing what makes the transition to college writing so difficult, and what separates those who go on to be successful college writers from those who do not. In order to carry out this study, Sommers studies 400 students—25% of the freshman class—from the Harvard Class of 2001. Since part of her goal is to determine what makes certain students successful college writers and what makes others fall behind, she carries out the study over a four year period. This enables her to watch the writing growth process of the freshman and investigate which habits lead to successful writing careers, and which habits are not conducive to success. The data Sommers collects is a mixture of qualitative and quantitative, consisting of “600 pounds of student writing, 520 hours of transcribed interviews, and countless megabytes of survey data.”

In terms of the organization of the paper, Sommers presents information in two main sections:

• Writing and writing practices freshman year
• Anecdotes from students who became successful college writers

Sommers begins with an anecdote concerning Harvard President Neil Rudenstine’s 1997 freshman orientation address. In it the president encourages the students “to write a great deal… and experiment with different kinds of writing—because experimentation forces one to develop new forms of perception and thought, a new and more complex sensibility.” However Sommers notes how the odds are stacked against freshman writers, who come in with high-school notions of writing and are expected to make a huge leap to college level writing. Sommers then turns to her data collected from the freshman students after their first year. One finding that particularly surprises Sommers is that, regardless of whether students are successful freshman writers or not, they value the writing they completed more than work done in any other course. She selects three transcriptions from interviews to illustrate:

• “If I hadn’t written, I would have felt as if I was just being fed a lot of information. My papers are my opportunity to think and say something for myself, a chance to disagree.”
• “Writing adds depth. If I hadn’t written, some of the depth of this first year would have been missing. I showed myself to be a credible thinker.”
• “Once you write a paper, you begin to see so much more; and the more you see, the more interesting the course becomes.”

Sommers expresses shock that students who spend countless hours writing papers their first year are able to look back on the experience so positively, regardless of how successful they were. She then turns to a graph containing the results of a survey conducted at the end of freshman year on the 400 students. The survey asks the students four questions, asking them to rank how helpful writing assignments were on a scale of not important, fairly important, important, or very important in regards to:

1. Understanding and applying the ideas of the course
2. Becoming involved with the course
3. Bringing interests into the course
4. Exploring and researching new ideas

The results again come as a surprise to Sommers. 73% of freshman say that writing assignments are important or very important to becoming involved in the course, 66% say the same for understanding and applying the ideas of the course, 73% in bringing their interests to the course, and 57% and 53% respectively for exploring/researching new ideas and discovering a new interest.

Next Sommers elaborates on what makes college writing in freshman year so difficult, using the phrase, “the novice-as-expert paradox.” From examining papers and talking to students, she determines that the reason freshman find college writing so difficult in their first year is because they are expected to write like experts on a subject in which they are novices. No longer is high school style summary and regurgitation acceptable; one must bring their own original ideas and opinions into the paper, despite having limited knowledge in the subject field. It is from reading through these papers and talking to students that she pinpoints what makes certain freshman writers successful. She notes that the most successful students have an “open attitude to instruction and feedback, a willingness to experiment, whether in course selection or paper topics, and a faith that, with practice and guidance, the new expectations of college can be met,” while those who “cling to their old habits and formulas and who resent the uncertainty and humility of being a novice have a more difficult time adjusting to the demands of college writing.

In her next section Sommers focuses on the accounts of seniors who became successful college writers, hoping to draw from them what made them successful and what advice they have for freshman writers. She discovers that most seniors’ responses involve viewing a paper not just as another assignment to complete, but rather as a medium that you can receive something back from. They advise freshman to try to see the “greater purpose in writing,” and view it as a reciprocating process. She uses one particular freshman followed by the study, Jeremy, as an example of a writer who struggled at first but accepted writing as something bigger than just an assignment and became successful. Jeremy is extremely religious and in his freshman year comparative religions course he discovered his passion for writing. To him the most important thing was that he wrote about what he was interested in, saying, “I loved writing about something I care about and seeing myself and my voice in my papers.” As he continued in college he cultivated his interest in religious studies and came to enjoy the writing process.

Sommers notes how most successful seniors have similar stories, and concludes by stating the major conclusion of her four year study. She states that students who accept their status as novices freshman year and allow their passions to guide them become the most successful writers, while those who view writing “as a matter of mechanics or as a series of isolated exercises tend never to see the ways writing can serve them as a medium in which to explore their own interest.” By writing about things that interest them students become passionate about the writing process, and because they are passionate about the subject matter as well, they slowly become experts in that field. This combination, Sommers finds, is the key to successful college writing.


"Do students experience writing as learning and thinking and, if so, under what condition?"

"Writing is, after all, hard work, especially when students are urged to "experiment": to question, to evaluate, and interpret ideas they are trying to comprehend for the first time."

"The enthusiasm so many freshmen feel is less for writing per se than for they way it helps to locate them in the academic culture, giving them a sense of academic belonging."

"By contrast, those freshmen who cling to their old habits and formulas and who resent the uncertainty and humility of being a novice have a more difficult time adjusting to the demands of college writing."

"Beyond presenting students with classical and contemporary theories of justice in texts by Aristotle, Kant, Locke, Mill, Nozick, and Rawls and with the application of these theories in arguments about affirmative action, income distribution, and free speech, his lectures challenge students to consider questions such as these: If surrogate motherhood commodifies women's labor, does paid military services do something with soldier's bodies?

"If there is one great dividing line in our study between categories of freshmen writers, the line falls between students who continue throughout the year not to see a "greater purpose in writing than completing an assignment" and freshmen who believe they can "get and give" when they write -between students who make the paradigm shift and those who don't"

Sommers and Saltz' ethnographic, qualitative, and quantitative study was interestingly novel. The surveys and analysis were basic and efficient in gathering simple data. However, the 4 year duration part of the analysis and interview was a grand endeavor of their research. By observing and analyzing the the freshmen until their graduation, Sommers and Saltz were able to gather data that is on one hand an obvious result and on the other an essential discovery in writing.

James and I both think that the methodology was brilliantly comprehensible. It wasn't a research full of complexities that only the researchers were able to grasp. The research emanated a sense of familiarity to us as it involved writing in freshmen, initially. I personally figured that this research can be absorbed effectively when the reader relates to each of their discoveries and specific anecdotes of other students. By doing so, I was able to figure out my OWN writing style and direction it was heading. Honestly, my writing attitudes were more like those of the freshmen who merely saw writing as assignments. I've started to develop the inclination towards writing as a developmental function, but initially, I would have to stand in line with those who consider writing as mere assignments. It also had me think over my writing process and attitudes as well. These researchers propose that writers will not develop as writers if they simply face each assignments as single assignments and not as milestones of the writing in the retrospective view.

My thoughts are similar to Minchang's. My attitudes as a writer were questioned and ultimately juxtaposed with the attitudes from the research. I found it difficult to compare, but I found it easy to learn from the attitudes. For example, Jeremy was initially shocked with the diversity of Harvard. Moreover, the diversity was inevitably going to affect his faith in Christianity. Therefore, his courses were mostly affected by this phenomena and led him to dig into himself rather than just write. He took the shock into his learning agendas by taking courses that allow him to explore himself through writing that may be difficult but ultimately rewarding in the end. He was writing not just for the assignments but utilizing it as a tool for self-excavation and self-evaluation. Most importantly, he loved writing to voice his opinions to support his beliefs. He was at a dilemma when faced with diversity never seen before and his primary beliefs. Even though he was challenged by the fact that his beliefs will be contradicted and thwarted while writing about other religions, he used that instead to develop his religious identity.

We both think that Jeremy's experience is one that should take in many writers. Not necessarily religious, but the same in terms of the pattern. We should utilize the writing experience as experience towards our writing career. Even though I, Minchang, am not initially a writer, I can establish my thoughts as engineers through writing and expressing my opinions in engineers in order to detect what engineering really is for me.

The research has been praised thus far by both of us. However, I want to bring into question the bias that could have taken place in this research to James and the audience. The research was taken place in Harvard among freshmen. While some opinionated that they saw no crucial development to take place in consecutive writing assignments, most agreed with the researchers that true purposes of writing takes place in self and a retrospect of writing done through successions. Not to be so pessimistic but these students could be expressing these opinions because they are freshmen at Harvard. I want to expand on this because this may come out stereotypical and confusing. Harvard is a prestigious learning place considered by nearly everyone who knows Harvard. Freshmen, then, must be pressured by the privilege of attending such a place and therefore would attempt to express their gratitude for such privilege or express their pride for having such privilege. This generalization is necessary because the analysis of writings and interviews are ultimately helping researchers find out more about the participating students. That means, these students will ultimately acquire recognition and by starting from the freshmen year, these students have accumulated a great deal of attention from various important figures of Harvard. To simply put it, these students could be doing this and fabricating opinions in order to stand above others in such a competitive environment. I don't think it's wrong to think in such a direction because students aren't robots who were engineered to think in a single direction. They are students who are new the the environment and wouldn't turn down an opportunity to get accustomed to such harsh environment. However, there can't be fabrication of the written products. These products are purely and honestly from the students' writing skills and attitudes, but the opinions gathered from interviews could be altered by each student to gain positive responses from the Harvard officials. Those students who apathetically present their opinions towards writing assignments to simply denounce them as just assignments by professors could face negative remarks and responses by those involved with the research and those Harvard officials interested in the research.

So aside from the writing aspect of the research, I feel that it's also important to notice the side of the research that can't easily be thought about when just looking at the research. When looking at it from higher above to see the whole picture and consider the whole circumstances of this research, it is easy to figure out some flaws of the research.

All in all, the research was significant and novel. It is more than just commendable to conduct analysis through all 4 years of college and the students who expressed themselves through writing are just as commendable as well. These students proved to become writers distinguishable from those who merely write to get work done. The writers who write to discover their own opinions and beliefs in addition to getting the assignments done truly emanate their luster as true writers. Still, it is not prudent to say these are the paradigm of writers, because writing is such a grand subject and writers can go many other ways to distinguish themselves and prove themselves as better writers. The research was, however, focused on a single theory and I appreciate the researchers' effort to inspect a specific aspect of writing that many should take into consideration for their own writing.

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