Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Blog as First-Year Student Diary: Writing is for Life

When I went to college as a first-year student, I wasn’t like the majority of today’s new students: I went away from home. And there wasn’t any internet or cell phones. Hence I wrote letters, real honest to God letters, hundreds of them. Oh how I wished I had asked my correspondents to save my letters. What a wonderful record they would have comprised for me, my children, and now grandchildren, about how a student can grow, change, mature, learn, suffer, ache—the whole gamut of possible outcomes. My letters were an opportunity for reflection, and for me to record my collegiate journey.

It was some years later after college when I had become something I never could have imagined during my own first college year I would be: a college professor helping students adjust to college. And I learned a strategy from one of my most special colleagues, Professor Jerry Jewler, that was a sort of analog, precursor, to a student blog. Jerry was a very talented professor of advertising and was working with me as the Co-Director of the University of South Carolina’s first-year seminar, University 101. He introduced a pedagogy into all sections of our course which we called simply: the weekly letter.

The assignment to our students was they were to write us a one page letter, each week. It was to have an introduction, body and conclusion and to develop one idea in one page. The instructor would usually provide a “trigger”, a focus, for the weekly letter. The stated goal of the exercise was to give the students an additional opportunity to practice simple written communication in a professional context.

But the real object was to provide three things: 1) a process for the student to reflect on what he/she was learning in college and their own collegiate journey; 2) an “early alert” system so that a student could communicate any significant problems to a caring university employee who could then intervene if appropriate; and 3) provide a structure for a relationship to develop between the student and an instructor, showing the student that writing was a means to develop relationships.

Each year in the first week of the semester, my “trigger” for the first of the weekly letters was: “write me a letter about the most significant unresolved problem you have had in your first week at the University”. One year, two of my twenty seven students wrote me that their most significant unresolved problem during the first week had been that they had been raped.

Writing my own blog has reminded me of what I did during my own first year of college, and what our students did in the weekly letters. So I would heartily endorse the idea of asking first-year students to start and maintain a blog to record their collegiate journey. Just think of the value to them, and also to qualitative researchers needing qualitative data for assessment purposes.

My colleague Jerry Jewler is retired now, but still writing, textbooks in fact. He and I both knew back in the 80’s that writing is not just for English 101, writing is for life.

-John N. Gardner

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