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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Q: And what did you do over Thanksgiving vacation? A: What you did is who you are.

When I either read (skim) or hear about many blogs, the subjects of which are so intensely personal right down to the minutia, my usual response is: “Who cares?” Followed by: “Not me.” So I am not going to write about what I did over Thanksgiving even though it was a good one for me, and for which I am thankful.

The question though of how I versus you, good reader, spent our respective Thanksgiving vacations, reminds me for some reason of a really insightful explanation I was offered once by a practicing sociologist whose subtle mind and insights I admired, one Phillip Weinberger, a professor at Waynesburg College in Pennsylvania.

I once heard a presentation by Professor Weinberger about the challenges of transition to college faced by working class students, i.e. children of working class parents. Weinberger argued that such children encountered in college for the first time people (faculty) for whom work was never left “at work”; and for whom one’s “work” was synonymous with one’s identity. Thus, what you did, “profess” was synonymous with what you are, “professor”. My son once asked me why I asked so many questions? I told him because that’s what I am and what I do. Professor Weinberger explained to me that first-year college students from working class parents were more likely to be suitcase college students: i.e. they were more likely to go home over weekends, because they had learned from their parents that work was something you left behind; you did not take it home with you; and you got away from it as soon as you could. Work was merely an instrumental means to an end, life. For faculty though, work was life, the life of the mind.

And so I think about our students. Would it be worth asking our students, perhaps more for our information than theirs, how many of them did “work” (i.e. academic work) over the holidays? I am positive a greater proportion of us academics did “work” over the same period, myself included. These class differences are increasingly an important part of determining the fit of college, the success of transition, the understanding of new options for identity. Successful transition to college may not look like rocket science, but I would argue that it is almost as complex, and even more important.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thankful for the Access We Once Had

In the continuing spirit of Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the access we once had in our country to our greatest universities, made possible by a consensus of public policy to keep these access costs relatively low. Those were the halcyon days; by no means perfect, but infinitely better than what lies ahead.

I refer to the announcement last week that affects us all: the decision by the University of California Board of Regents to raise tuition by 32% for next fall. As The New York Times opined—“A Crown Jewel of Education Struggles…..”

I lived in a state for three decades that could easily dismiss California as another country, as one where things that happened there, surely can’t happen here. But they are and will. California led the way on an enormous orgy of personal, corporate, government debt and dysfunctional government gridlock. California’s system of higher education based on extraordinary innovation and public investment in low cost access and infrastructure, led the way too.

This suggests to me one more way the poor are going to be “whacked” as Tony Soprano would say. We all know who is going to be less able to attend the fabled UC System. And this is going to trickle down to almost all the rest of the states.

So what can we individual educators do? It is my hope that we can still use whatever forces we have for conscience, for advocacy, for equity, to try to shape what policies and practices we may still control to remember the poor, the less fortunate, who equally deserve access to our country’s flagships. I am not ready to give up this “ship” yet, but I am very worried that the Civil Rights movement has finally ended. Without low cost access to the very best public universities in our land, there can be no hope of leveling the playing field.

-John N. Gardner