An Introductory Guide to the Trials and Stressors of the First-Year Writing Classroom

By Amy Gaeta     

Everyone tells you that you will write tons in English 100, but few tell you how much you will feel.

Amy Gaeta is a Ph.D. candidate in the Literary Studies and Visual Cultures (doctoral minor) programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Through her work, she arranges aspects of feminist approaches to Disability Studies and Technoscience Studies to question alternative modes of agency within the global surveillance state and the ongoing War on Terror. Amy is committed to scholarship and pedagogy as a means to promote social justice. Her teaching in the Writing Center and the English department focuses on encouraging students to consider themselves as writers in a wider social and political community.

When I was a college freshman, I noticed some students were terrified by the all the new requirements: MLA format, weekly discussion posts, and nightly readings. Other students, myself included, were stuck trying to figure out “our place” within the classroom, the university, and even “society.” Lastly, we wondered, how did the admissions committee mess up so bad by letting us in? 

Nearly 8 years later, now a seasoned English 100 instructor, I’ve come to identify my emotional experience as commonplace within first-year writing classrooms. Composition studies has affirmed my observation that, as Elizabeth Suar and Jason Palmeri say, “teaching is messy, emotional work” (146). As a result, we must give attention to how the emotional experiences of student and instructors inform one another (Micciche 2003).

My value in messiness and emotion arises from my academic and activist work in queer, feminist, racial, and disability theory and rights. The utmost crucial thing this work has taught me is that emotional difficulty is not pedagogical failure. Rather, it is the sign of change that can form communities based differences, not similarities. To establish this community, I’ve developed strategies to navigate three principal sources of emotional distress for English 100 students: 1.) the “new-to-college” freedoms and fears, 2.) the seeming displacement that comes with shaping one’s identity, 3.) and imposter syndrome.

The purpose of this post is to provide small, but impactful ways, to reduce the chances of students’ emotional reactions negatively overpowering their overall academic and social success within first-year writing courses. To be clear, it is pure fantasy to imagine that any single person can so simply settle the complexities of another’s emotional distress, but what we can do is learn to live with, and maybe even write through, these emotions.

1. New-to-College Freedoms and Fears

The new responsibilities and freedoms that accompany college can scare students into a stress deeper than they have ever known. The English 100 instructor faces a question, “Do I simply ‘go easy’ on them or do I proceed at my normal pace to help adjust them to college?”

The answer is up to you, but I chose neither.

Instead, I tell them: “writing is about choices, and it’s my job to help expand your critical thinking to make those choices.” I mitigate the freshman year excitement and stress through both content and teaching styles that promote community and responsibility. Rather than setting learning goals for them, students are asked to set their own goals for how they want to advance as writers and what they want their writing to do.

Likewise, toward the end of the class, the class collectively comes together to create and justify the grading rubric I use for their final projects. In this way, students can exercise their new freedoms while also consider the effects of their choices on others in a low-stakes setting.

2. Identity Shaping & Displacement

One can begin to see how composition studies has addressed student identity in the classroom from the 1974 “Students’ Right to their Own Language” resolution from the Conference on College Composition and Communication. The conference emphasized dialect, multilingualism, and code-switching, but what I highlight here is how this resolution implies that it is our pedagogical responsibility to respect that student identities can and should be expressed in the classroom.

The current political climate and resurgences of civil rights movements bolsters the need to acknowledge the multivalent nature of student identities. No matter the apparent demographics of a class, there are always shifting and intersecting identities at work in the room, including your own. In tandem, not everyone knows “who” they are and “who” a given society has labeled them to be, especially when you’re just 18 years old (or any age, really). But, no matter the teaching content, I have found its crucial to address and acknowledge these shifting identities through assignments and in-class discussions.

To go along with the notion of “writing is making choices,” once or twice a semester I give a writing or multimedia assignment with little to no guidelines except, “Write about yourself, in whatever way you want. You have my complete confidentiality, but there is no need to disclose anything personal.”

I am not going to lie, often their assignments are emotionally challenging for me, but some are funny and clever as well. If they don’t have an outlet, how can ideas of identity and displacement be expressed through a classroom without producing a structure of forced disclosure?

Yes, as Suar and Palmeri say, teaching is messy work. However, if we run from messiness, then we just leave the clean-up work for somebody else. Moreover, as feminist studies has taught me, an ethics of care begins on the ground that nothing is perfect, and striving toward neat perfection is in contradiction to growth, change, and critical thinking.

To promote the applicability of this vital messiness for writing, during discussions about audience I often use myself as an example to explain how my identities categories and experiences lead me to read differently sometimes than those of other identity groups. I try to expand “identity” to include a multiple of things: my instructor-identity, my student-identity, my gender-identity, my daughter-identity, my racial identity, my sometimes-yoga student identity, and on and on and on. So, students are encouraged to critically think about themselves and their writing regarding a heterogeneous audience, rather than some universal anonymous author or group.

3. Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you do not belong in an earned position, i.e., a job or a school. We have “tricked” them all with our imposter identity.

Over time, imposter syndrome shows itself as students may begin to lack confidence, over-pressure themselves to excel, or even speak about leaving school. And yes, this instructor still has it too sometimes.

So, maybe we do not feel like the best writers or teachers, but, as I tell students, you can and do teach us all things every single class. Imposter syndrome is best soothed by emphasizing all the various forms of knowledge that students can and do bring to the classroom. For instance, during each project, I make it a point to tell them what I’ve learned from them through their writing and class presence, whether it be about writing or maybe about sports, the best food on campus, or facts from their biology class. Students do not participate by answering questions, they participate by contributing and teaching us all.

Lastly, whenever it seems like emotions are high, a few students seem left out, or the class discussion gets intense, just acknowledge it. Instead of ignoring emotional difficulty out of an attempt at courtesy, I suggest we address the class, yourself included, and admit it: college is hard. The reason it is so hard is because we care so much about ourselves, one another, and the futures we are building together.


Work Cited

Micciche, Laura. A Way to Move: Rhetorics of Emotion and Composition Studies. Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 2003.

Saur, Elizabeth, and Jason Palmeri. “Letter to a New TA: Affect Addendum.” Council of Writing Program Administrators 40.2 (2017): 146-153.


Chess people: from user “pixabay” on

Microphone: from user “pixabay” on

Most photos are sourced from public domain and available for noncommercial use under the Creative Commons Agreement. The non-stock images were taken by Amy Gaeta and Aviva Silverman in Fall 2018 during their English 100 courses at UW-Madison.