Monday, October 3, 2011

Let’s Get Them to Tell Their Stories for Posterity

John Gardner

Some years ago when I was appointed on a full time basis at the University of South Carolina, we had a Canadian scholar, Elsie Watt Froment, of Trinity Western University in British Columbia, come spend parts of two years conducting research in our University archives. She was there to retrieve the “papers”, the documents and correspondence, that traced the evolution of the so called “first-year experience movement, including many of my own writings, particularly in correspondence and internal documents.  She was also there to interview and capture on audiotape all the still living players in the events that led to the establishment originally of University 101 and then the spawned larger movement to improve the first year. So in a very personal sense I became aware of the importance of “primary sources” related to my own work.

Somehow, the way my mind works, I connect this to a report I heard on National Public Radio about a new initiative of Story Corps that they are describing as a “national education initiative”. In this year when the occupation has been so demeaned by Republicans blaming them as public employees for the financial problems of states, Story Corps, thank goodness, is asking us Americans to come into their booths and tell our own stories about what our teachers have meant to us. Who do we remember? And why?

This reminds me once again of providing opportunities on our campuses for students to tell their own stories, in their own words. What could we be doing to more intentionally capture these stories, and recording them as important historical artifacts of our times. What kind of value would there be to having our own version of Story Corps where our students could easily come in and tell their stories? How empowering to them might it be to let them think we cared about their stories? And that we wanted others to be listening to them too—and perhaps even be moved to certain kinds of actions too. All it might take is one sentence, one phrase, or the repetition by many students of one basic theme.

An illustration of the power of a phrase, I recall an assessment initiative undertaken by Virginia Commonwealth University more than a decade ago: the freshman prompts project. The idea was to use their first-year composition course to have several thousand VCU first-year students write one response a week to a “prompt” given in class each week for the purpose of this qualitative study on the nature of the beginning university experience at that university. After the thousands of prompts were collected at the end of the term they were sorted, collated, analyzed, tabulated and converted into a meaningful synthesis. The one student response from these thousands that caught the most attention and drove the most subsequent action, was a student who wrote in response to the prompt “Large classes are for…” the following: “Large classes are for teaching not learning.” Wow. That became a cause célèbre: what could the University do to enhance learning in the context of large classes.

Much more recently, just this past May, I delivered a commencement address to a nearby community college. The President had politely and very appropriately asked me to limit my remarks to a 10-12 minutes max. But he failed to tell me that I would be following a student commencement speaker. And that I did, a 40’s or early 50’s something woman who laid out for the graduates the hardships she had experienced and triumphed over. Wow. It really grabbed my attention and I just had to respond in some way as I began my own remarks.  So that added another 2-3 minutes to my talk and hence made me run over the allotted specified desired length. But that student’s words were just what that audience needed to hear, especially the administration, faculty, and the local taxpayers who support that institution financially.
I can only imagine the number of epiphanies that might emerge if more campuses collected the voices of our students and then gave them some thoughtful consideration as a basis for our efforts to improve the learning experiences of these students. In the short run, maybe some places can launch their own versions of Story Corps.

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