John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Write Our Own Future

March 16, 2015huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner
President

It is important to be able to point to current, real world events, to create teachable moments for our students.

Several weeks ago, President Obama, in what for me was one of the most memorable lines of his State of the Union speech, told the country it was time “to write our own future.” I say memorable because that was really what has stayed with me from that speech. Yes, there was much attention paid to what some commentators called the President’s defiant tone. I realize that affect (perceived as “tone”) is important. But what matters more to me is the substance of what he said.

And I think this idea of “write your own future” is a great way to characterize for students what the college experience is all about.

It is about a very personal process, personal to each student. We carry this to great extremes in US higher education because we allow our students so many different choices—I believe too many, but that’s another matter. But the end result is the students’ individual “pathways” (a current buzz word for those who would improve higher education) are vastly different and hence personal.

I even take this language literally. Students should be asked to first think and reflect about their future, but then to “write” about it, literally. Students aren’t doing nearly enough conventional writing. They think they know themselves best. What a perfect subject to be writing about. In fact, I am working on a project now to integrate so-called “college success” content into the teaching of writing. Write about themselves and their futures especially during the first year but then in successive periods too. Write about it in first-year seminar courses, English composition courses, any course where personal reflection and application is relevant. Write about it in journals, papers, customized, personal research. Write about it in the creation of text for electronic portfolios.

Writing something is a creative process. The writer is the creator. So the student, as the writer of her/his own future, is the creator. The student needs to own this creation. It is not that of their parents/friends, even the society. Not that we don’t influence the writing. We do. We should. But ultimately we need to get students to do the creating in an intentional process from which they own the outcomes. They hold themselves responsible.

Write your own future, is about personal planning—academic planning, life planning, family planning, business planning—and more. We have to teach our students more about how to go about this. Hence, one more argument for paying more attention to the beginning college experience.

The first year is the foundational period for: “write your own future.”

If we really believed in the importance of college as a process to “write our own future” we would be paying a lot more attention to the importance of academic advising. I do see some signals out there in the academy that “advising” is having a renaissance in terms of attention. Certainly big public universities are spending a fortune on data analytics to provide advisors with more information to better guide student decision making (writing their own future). The jury is out on whether the use of analytics will really result in substantially improved student progress, much as we all want that.

My point here is that we need to encourage students to make good use of the freedom we give them, their locus of control. And I think this notion of “write our own future” is a captivating metaphor to do so. Students remember more than we give them credit for.

One of the few things in life that I am really sure of is that college enabled me to write my own future.

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