John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Memories are made of this!

There is no denying it, my 25 years as a director and professor in a first-year seminar program and course had a great deal of influence on my understanding of and thinking about college students, and the larger academy. But for the last eleven years my work has been focused laser like on the larger higher education community and how to improve how it influences student success. However, I still find myself constantly thinking of ways to directly influence students. And the other day I had another inspiration in this regard. So this blog is really going to return me, very briefly, to my days as a first-year seminar instructor when I was constantly looking for new pedagogies of engagement.

For six years at USC I worked with another full professor, Jerry Jewler, to co-direct University 101. Jerry came up with many wonderful ideas to strengthen our course. And one of them was the concept of “weekly letters.” Now keep in mind this was in the era (1983-89) prior to e-mail. And while we had long practiced “journaling” in our University 101 course, Jerry adapted this to the idea of having each student write their instructor a “weekly letter,” the old fashioned way. And the instructor would “frame” the focus of the letter. Each letter was required to be no longer than one page, have an introductory paragraph, body and conclusion. And each instructor was required to read the letters and return same, manually, to the students at the next class period, with feedback. The whole point of this was to use this writing as a personal and private platform by which to develop a relationship and also to be a kind of “early warning system” to alert the instructors to potential problems for which some kind of intervention might be appropriate.

One opening fall term, I asked the students to write their weekly letter on this topic: “What is the most significant thing that happened to you during your first week at the University?” Two of my students wrote that their most significant experience had been that they had been raped. How would I have known had I not asked?

Where in the world am I going with this blog? Well, to the present, and then back to the past, and then to the future.

The other day I received in the mail from a dear “kissing” cousin of mine, a woman about 70, a packet of handwritten letters, which she had discovered in a treasure trove of materials set aside in an attic by her late mother, my former aunt. These letters were those I had written my aunt in my later high school years, first year of college, senior year, first year of graduate school, Air Force days, spanning not quite a decade.
At first I was reluctant to even look at one. But then my wife, Betsy Barefoot, started reading them one by one, and quoting from them liberally. So I got my courage up and ventured in myself.

I have found this to be an extraordinarily powerful and meaningful experience. As I have written previously, I know I am “aging into wisdom.” But then isn’t that an objective of all stages of education?
I had all kinds of reactions:

1. What I know now that I didn’t know then.

2. Then the jury was out; now it is in.

3. What were my developmental issues then; how was I handling them?

4. My attitudes and outlooks struck me as the same as they are today.

5. Character gets formed early and deeply.

6. Communication is a lifetime pattern. I communicated then as I do now.

7. I really cared about relationships. And I still do.

8. And more.

As I was reading these I couldn’t help but think: wouldn’t this make a wonderful exercise for students in a first-year seminar course? Have them write some “letters” (e-mail would be fine) to people in their lives whom the students would ask to save these messages and at some later point in life share them back with the sending student. Part of the value of this, of course, would be the thought process the student would have to go through now to tell the significant others just what they, the students, thought was the impact, meaning, import, of the college experience now. Of course, this is a strategy to engender a more powerful and deeper learning: reflection.

I suspect that students would enjoy both the initial process and then the retrospective years later. And they would obtain additional practice in reflective writing. They can never write enough, or too much. That was and is a core belief of Jerry Jewler and me.
John N. Gardner

One Comment

  1. BeeKayRootOctober 5, 2010 at 12:36 amReply

    I love this idea, and I think I will explore using it in my Freshman Seminar course in the future.

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