I'm teaching my department's 'proseminar' this quarter: This course is designed specifically for those considering (or who have recently declared) philosophy as their major, and instead of focusing on particular philosophical content, it aims to practice and develop the characteristic skills philosophy students need, including analytical reading, scholarly research, logical reasoning, and of course, writing.
However, I made a somewhat unsettling discovery recently:
The students have been working for several weeks on their term papers and a first draft is due this week. Last week, I did an exercise I commonly do in class: I distributed note cards to each student and asked them to write down what challenges they were confronting in completing their drafts and what sorts of writing-related topics they wanted us to address in class this week. There were a wide variety of responses, but one clear theme was an undercurrent of anxiety. What were the students anxious about? Broadly speaking, what I'd call "authorial judgment": which authors present the best cases for a thesis, which objections to take seriously, how to determine the scope of the paper, etc. What was undeniable is that students expressed a sense of being stuck or trapped.
These are understandable anxieties, but what took me aback in these responses was that the very purpose of the course has been to provide students with practice in using effective writing strategies that ought to diminish this kind of anxiety. But it appears that for some of them, my talking about the need for extensive pre-writing, etc., has induced a kind of graphophobia, where they're afraid to write and paralyzed by the need to make authorial choices.
I should say that I've encountered this sort of paralysis before. But it usually arises when students have an inadequate understanding of the writing task and how to tackle it. What's puzzling here is that we've worked so much on the very strategies that ought to forestall it. So now my concern is how to help students alleviate or circumvent this sort of anxiety or paralysis? How do you motivate them to make these necessary choices and write?