Instructor Insights

Teaching Novices

In this section, Wyn Kelley shares her insights about supporting novices as they approach literary analysis and writing essays.

In my teaching, I distinguish between experts and novices. There’s no hierarchy; it’s just that experts and novices have different ways of talking and showing mastery. Novices have ways of learning that experts lack, along with different approaches to texts. I expect students in Nobelistas to be novices. I have found that if you relieve students of the pressure to be experts, then they can be who they are, and excel.

Scaffolding Novices’ Literary Analyses

Decades ago, I used to hand my students a theme, such as “the role of the family in Shakespeare’s Henry V” and ask them simply to discuss. Since MIT has offered Communication Intensive courses, my teaching has changed quite a bit. I now focus more on skills than on topics, and on close reading rather than themes. So often, looking more closely at a passage opens it up and gives you a very different understanding. If you’re open to it, something wonderful happens. So rather than students showing me mastery of an entire text, they work with a small piece of the text that is connected to larger issues.

"I have found that if you relieve students of the pressure to be experts, then they can be who they are, and excel."
—Wyn Kelley

This approach often runs contrary to novices’ prior experiences. Frequently, students have been trained to read for content and to get to the point quickly. That’s how they’ve passed all those tests! And I’m slowing them down and holding them back by design. Some novices are uncomfortable with this. I sometimes have students who are upset because I’m not doing what they’re used to and what their high school English teachers did. Some of them come to MIT with a strong sense of what an English teacher should be. And I’m particularly delighted by those students, because when they become more open to what you’re trying to show them, they learn fast.

To scaffold students’ close reading, I provide guidelines for how to approach the essay I assign in the course. I give them a sense of the different steps they might go through and the different things they might avoid. I want as much as possible to make what we’re doing transparent. I feel that if they understand the process, they’ll produce something really interesting. For instance, the guidelines help them delve deeply into the text in such a way that they avoid generalities and preconceptions. Sometimes I worry about giving them too many guidelines, but I have found that when I walk them through the process, they perform really well. For the Nobelistas course, I used my one-on-one conferences with students (see below) to develop guidelines, because I wanted them to develop their own topics. 

Conveying the Idea that a Conclusion is Never Really a Conclusion

The experimental model is central to the MIT experience, but it’s hard for novices to think about their writing as being experimental. They think that their paper has to come to a blinding conclusion—that they will get a grade, and the paper will be completed. I try to convey to students that the work they do in their papers is always a part of a larger process of expanding their ideas; their conclusions are never really conclusions. I tell them they should always think of their papers as having a next draft. For example, they might publish a version of their course paper in the student magazine, or revise it to become part of a thesis.

Novices also tend to think they’re writing for just one person: the instructor. Conveying the idea that they will continue to transform their papers helps students see that the audience for their work is bigger. They can move past the idea that the purpose of completing the paper is only to leap over this particular hurdle.

Novices’ Biggest Fear

The thing novices in my class fear the most is not having a thesis statement in their essays. They have this fear because the papers in Nobelistas are intended to be argumentative papers and rhetorical exercises. They want everything to support their point, and they tend to be afraid to get off the track they think the paper is setting for them.

To support them, I try to convey that if they end up with more questions than statements, they’re probably doing something right. I don’t want to encourage them to get completely off track, because they need the structure, but they do need to learn there are other kinds of analysis than what they’re used to. They need to learn that when they have a thesis, it doesn’t have to be original, the only statement of its kind, or better than anything the scholars have developed. Mainly, I want them to realize that when they’re writing for their peers, they’re not expected to be experts; rather, I expect them to be novices, and to learn as novices.

Conferring with Students

I hold one-on-one conferences with students mid-way through the semester. These conferences are opportunities for me to help students understand that there isn’t a specific formula for a good paper. I want them to see that the formulas they were taught can change when they expand their knowledge and their resources. The conference is the place to investigate new kinds of thinking, to reshape their habits, and to give them a new perspective on the things they thought they knew.

I also hold conferences with students, because I can’t read their papers without knowing something about them—their process, who they are, and from where they’re coming. I’m not a therapist. It’s more that writing engages so many parts of the self. So the conference is the place where I can gauge how they’re approaching different aspects of the class. Usually we discuss their essay for the course, but it extends to their reading, their participation in the discussions—and any part of the class that is unexpected or hasn’t yet come up in the conversation. It’s difficult to explain because the conferences are different each time, but I think they’re critical. I always make participation in a conference a requirement.

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