Friday, April 9, 2010

If You Could Give Your Students One Book

If you could give your students just one book to read, that you thought, hoped, might really affect them, reveal something to them, move them, perhaps provide even an epiphany, what would you ask them to read?

This is not just idle speculation. I recommend this as an exercise for faculty development workshops, especially those preparing higher educators to teach first-year seminar courses. I am a co-author of three different texts for that genre and I have no illusion that my books would meet the test I have just suggested!

I come to ask this non hypothetical question because I had a wonderful, transformative, empowering epiphany from a professor who asked and answering that very question.

It was the fall of 1961, and I was a poorly performing freshman at Marietta College. I was lonely and homesick, and especially missed a young woman 600 miles away “back home”. I was seventeen years old and to say that I was “undecided” did not do me justice. I had only one required course for the BA at Marietta and that was Speech 101. And I was failing that course. And that was because I had overcut the class to take several long weekends to go back home and see that special young woman. She didn’t make me do it. I made myself do it.

The professor called me in near the end of the term and offered me a deal and thereby introduced me to one of the oldest pedagogies known to professors: reading as punishment.

He gave me this choice: read these two books and stand an oral examination on your learning and receive at the most, a D for the course; or reject the deal and get an F. I choose to read the two books.

What were they?
1. Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm.
2. The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman.

I had no idea how much smarter this prof was than I was! Fromm’s book was and is an analysis of why the most liberal democracy in Western Europe voluntarily ended democracy and elected a dictator, Adolph Hitler in 1933. The author’s argument: freedom is a burden that cannot be handled well by some people. And my professor knew I was not handling my college freedom (to attend or not attend my classes) well at all. This book really forced me to examine my behavioral choices, my uses of freedom.

The other work, The Lonely Crowd, Riesman’s masterpiece that catapulted him to prominence in the lay press, was an insightful argument about how American society produces two types of people: 1. The “inner directed man”; and 2. The “outer directed man”. Reading this I knew that I had to choose to become an “inner directed man” who marched to the beat of his own drummer, his own inner values. And the work helped me understand many of the values that I had required from my childhood exposure to children’s literature in our society.

Years later, in 1980, I received an unsolicited letter from David Riesman. He was writing to ask me some questions in response to a book review I had had published in the Journal of Higher Education. It was truly a thrill to hear from this eminent scholar who had had such an influence on me as a very youthful college student just beginning his own journey of intellectual self discovery through higher education. Professor Riesman and I developed a correspondence that went on for over a decade. And it was the old fashion kind: letters. In 1990, my now wife, Dr. Betsy Barefoot, and I went up to Harvard to interview him; spent three hours with him; taped our conversation and then Betsy edited and had printed our interview in The Journal of The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Why all this interest in Professor Riesman? Because as one of the world’s most distinguished sociologists of the twentieth century, he had also chaired the faculty committee which had created Harvard’s freshman seminar in 1959. We wanted to know what led him to do that? And how was his seminar similar or different in its objectives than our seminar, University 101, at the University of South Carolina. Better leave that to a future blog. If you want a copy of the interview, write the Journal Editor at the USC National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

If my comments about Fromm have interested you, you should know that his best seller was a little book which sold in the multi, multi million copies: The Art of Loving. This is a must gift for someone you love.

So back to my original question: if you could give your students one book (and, of course, you can) that could really influence them, what would it be? And when you have answered that question, I hope you will take the next step and do it.

-John Gardner

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What Would You Like Me to Blog About?

Several decades ago when I was working with my colleague, Jerry Jewler, to administer the University 101 course at the University of South Carolina, Jerry shared with me one of the many great creative ideas he gifted to me: freewriting. Actually, it wasn’t Jerry’s original idea, but it struck me as original and it was original in our context. The source of the inspiration was the writing pedagogy guru, Peter Elbow, to whom Jerry introduced me. And what we were trying to do was to teach University 101 instructors who didn’t teach writing, to teach writing to first-year students in the first-year seminar, to reinforce the writing instruction they were receiving in the first-year English course sequence. The moral of our story was we were trying to convey to students that writing was for life, not just English 101.

The freewriting technique at its most elementary level is a process for discovering ideas. And you simply ask students to start writing any ideas that pop into their heads, not be shared or submitted to anyone, especially their professor. And then as the ideas begin to flow, you gradually “focus” the freewriting process by providing “triggers” for the students to narrow the range of their free thinking and freewriting.

Bottomline: it was a very effective pedagogical process to use in first-year seminar instructor training workshops, and then with our students. I recalled this process as I started to write this blog post. I was trying to discover my blog idea of choice—I really do have so many, so I don’t literally have to engage in freewriting. But my starting to write a blog, and freewriting have in common that they are both processes of idea discovery and ultimate communication.

As I was thinking about what to write about, I had a novel thought, one that we used to practice in University 101 too. Jerry and I would urge our instructors not to fill every class date on the syllabus in advance. Instead, we would urge them to find out from the students what they wanted to learn about and to use some of those open dates to respond to learner needs. Wow. What a novel idea: try to teach people what they want to learn.

And so, finally, to the point of this blog posting: I thought I would ask you, my reader(s): is there anything you would like me to write about? Eureka! Let’s ask the customer. This doesn’t obligate me to satisfy the request but I am certainly not asking the question just to know what my readers are interested in. I plan to do something with this! Thank you very much.

And now that I think about it, that University 101 course was not just a course for my first-year students. It was a course designed to make me a more effective professor. And it did just that.

-John Gardner

Monday, April 5, 2010

Beyond Passover and Easter: It Can’t Be Long Now

Ok, spring is officially here. Now Easter, Passover, and probably spring break are past us. And this means that our students’ thoughts are turning to the end of the school year and summer. This is really an anachronistic way of thinking.

The notion of “the end of the year” is really a relic of the by gone influence of the agricultural cycle on the school calendar. Students were needed to work the fields in the summer and so couldn’t go to school. And along with that developed the idea that if we had to have “summer school” it was only for dummies. Nothing could be further from the truth now.

The reality is that “summer school” is for the fast burners. And more importantly, thanks to research analysis performed by Clifford Adelman and reported in his noteworthy “Tool Box Revisited”, we know that any participation in summer school, actually predicts for higher graduation rates, especially in minority students.

In work I have been spending recently in thinking about sophomore student success institute, in which I am going to participate next week, organized by USC, I recall that one of the challenges of our second year students is simply getting them back started in the routine of college again after their first summer “off”. After all, they really hadn’t been in college very long and were just beginning to get acclimated and then we excuse them for four months or so. This provides more than ample opportunity for our students to—as the southern Baptists used to say “backslide”.

So, in the next 4-6 weeks ago, in your concluding conversations with students for the term, I hope you are getting them to consider going to summer school, or to at least some way stay connected to your college experience. What are some other ways to do this:

1. Take a summer course at another institution

2. Engage in “pre-reading” for courses for which they are pre-registered for next fall
3. Stay in touch with new friends, including faculty and staff they met this year
4. Find summer employment in some context that might be related in some way to their academic field of interest
5. Related thereto, try to find an internship, practicum before the term ends
6. Consider registering for an independent study which they could do over the summer
7. Seek employment on your campus and don’t go home at all!

The above list is by no means exhaustive. Bottom-line theme: stay connected. It will increase their probability for success next year and ultimate graduation. The sooner they learn that “school is never really over” the better.

-John Gardner