John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Would You Like Me to Blog About?

January 26, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John Gardner

I am losing track of time on this but a few years ago, a former staff colleague of mine in our Institute, suggested for the first time that I do a blog. I tried ignoring her at first as in just laughing and saying “Me? You have to be kidding.” But she didn’t give up and finally I consented. OK, so now I have a blog. The challenge of course is to be disciplined about this and to keep at it. Usually, this is no challenge for me as I always have things I am thinking about and feel I can easily share. I have a task master in our Institute who posts my blogs and makes them look better than I would alone, and she keeps nudging me when I don’t have at least one waiting to be posted. Her goal for me is two a week. I don’t always make that.

At this moment I knew I should write something and as I thought about what I should write, the phrase “Well, let’s ask the customer.” came to mind. So I am asking: “What would my readers like me to write about?” I would look forward to hearing from you with suggestions of topics.

This challenge of what to write about reminds me of a technique I learned from a former colleague of mine at the University of South Carolina, Jerry Jewler. Jerry was a distinguished professor of advertising in our school of Journalism. And he directed with me the University 101 course, for six years from 1983-99. One of his strongest passions for what he believed students needed to do in our course was to develop thinking skills. And for Jerry, the best way to do that was to develop writing skills. He saw the teaching of writing as a way of teaching thinking skills. So he made a point of emphasis with our teaching faculty for the course to provide training for people who don’t teach writing to teach writing. And now a quarter of a century later I still believe that this is one of the most important purposes of any first-year course, but especially two: the first-year writing/composition course(s) and first-year seminar.

Jerry’s favorite process for teaching instructors and then ultimately students, was to use the pedagogy of a well known scholar and teacher of writing, Peter Elbow, and in particular, his strategy known as free writing. In our University 101 Teaching Experience Workshops Jerry would use the Elbow pedagogies. First we would just have the instructors practice pure “freewriting” in which they would be asked to write anything they were thinking. This would be a form of “private” writing, not to be shared with anyone in the group.

Then he would move them to “focused” freewriting by giving them a focus or topic to direct freewriting towards. And to get them started on the focused freewriting, he would give them “triggers” or phrases and ask them to write down anything that occurred to them in response to the trigger they had just heard. We believed that we could teach academics from a broad variety of disciplines who weren’t teachers of writing to become teachers of writing to become teachers of thinking.

As I started writing this blog, I already had a topic. The topic was to ask my readers what they would like me to write about. But that reminded me of another topic, of something I believe in, of a special memory and appreciation for a former very close working colleague. And this connects to my current work. I still think that first-year seminars need to be courses to teach students how to think in college, and that writing is a powerful pedagogy to achieve that end. And, yes, Jerry Jewler’s and Peter Elbow’s beliefs and pedagogies can still help at that.

Perhaps my thinking about this was stimulated by recent discussion of so many American school children no longer receiving instruction in cursive writing and all moving towards learning to write on IPads. And I am sure I am influenced by my daily distress in observing what’s happening to writing as practiced now on smart phones, and e-mail too. For any writer, myself included, there are so many powerful connections between our ideas, concerns, what we write, and for whom.

Do let me know if there are topics you want to hear from me about.

Thank you for reading and influencing my thinking, and then writing, I hope…

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