Published: Feb. 1, 2020

Eric Klinger portraitInquiry: Eric Klinger

Eric Klinger, senior writing instructor and associate faculty director of the CU Boulder Writing Center, teaches “Intergenerational Writing,” a course that pairs juniors and seniors with community members over the age of 60 for research and writing projects. For many students, the class is the most memorable of their college careers.

Where’d you learn to write?

My father is a retired newspaper publisher and editor and my mother is a voracious reader, so they inspired a love of the written word in me from my earliest memories. I’ve been teaching collegiate writing courses since 2001. Writing has always been my intellectual home and I strive to foster that feeling for as many students, friends and colleagues as possible. When we write, we think better. When we think, we write better. Surely, that has to help make things a bit better for everyone.

How’d you come to teach this particular class?

A former student took me to brunch in 2018 and pitched the idea of me taking over this class that he was a volunteer in. I’ve always loved having conversations with people who have taken more trips around the sun and seen more of the world than I have. This class was the perfect opportunity to do that.

Why invite community members to a student class?

The concept of inviting community members from previous generations to share this class with students is the brainchild of Jack Williamson, who wondered, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we could find a way to connect local elders with undergraduates? Imagine how much they would have to talk and write about.’ 

Intergenerational understanding is one of the most important human resources we have in society, yet we tend to squander it in the U.S. George Norlin challenges us to know one another with his words above the west entrance to Norlin Library: ‘Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.’ Community members talk about how getting to know younger generations in this class inspires new hope and faith in the future, and students talk about all that they discover in common with those who have come before them. It also prepares students for collaborating with older generations in the workplace. 

What are the initial expectations of the students?

The first day of class is quite amusing. Although the class is described in the course catalog, most students arrive on the first day quite confused about the gray-haired folks sitting in every other seat around the room. Most stop, look around, take out their phones to verify that they’re in the right place and then cautiously take a seat. After I’ve finished describing the class syllabus, expectations and policies, I ask everyone to participate in a simple icebreaker. The pin-drop silence rushes out of the room as everyone circulates and learns something about one another, such as a hometown, a college major, a life passion, etc. By the end of the first class, there’s a self-charging electricity to the room. 

How does the class work?

As an educator, I’ve long attempted to foster an environment of unconditional positive regard, something I learned about when I encountered the writings of Carl Rogers. I’ve discovered over the years that too much hierarchy is not productive to an enriching and intrinsically motivating classroom.

Both students and community members write papers for the class. The ‘magic sauce’ of the class is the profile essay, where community members and students pair up to write a biographical narrative about their partner. The experience is profoundly affecting for many, if not most, in the room. To authentically know and be known by another adult is a unique experience. I’m proud to be part of providing that rare opportunity for CU students. 

This past semester, your students explored the concept of the American dream. Why that topic?

Every single person in the room has a connection to the American dream, whether we’re conscious of it or not. It evokes stories of immigration, work, families, geography, language, food, news, history, music, art and so much more. This topic bridges the past, present and future. It enables conversations that weave aspirations, frustrations and shared experiences into a tapestry no one can foresee.

What were some positive results of the class?

People share class conversations with neighbors, friends, family and even people at the grocery store. I’ve also heard how the class has rescued holiday dinner conversations from domination by cranky uncles.

How do you plan to expand the class in the future?

The community organizers and I share the goal of promoting this class far and wide. Currently, we do not know of any other intergenerational university writing classes being offered at other U.S. universities and colleges. We believe our core model of co-mentorship across generations has exciting promise in multiple learning environments including nursing, counseling, ethnic studies, management and other academic fields. We plan to continue offering the class each fall semester and look forward to seeing new iterations spring up around the country. 

Condensed and edited by Christie Sounart (Jour'12) 

More information on the course can be found here

Photos courtesy Eric Klinger; Jack Williamson