Published: Aug. 26, 2019 By

Old book

Jack Williamson, a 74-year-old retiree, spent 2016 working with a program called Cyber Seniors. He was looking for ways to bridge generational gaps and the program allowed Boulder high schoolers to help retirement home residents navigate new technologies. The program was a success, but he wanted more. 

It ultimately took a chance meeting with Sarah Massey-Warren, an instructor in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric, to get Williamson’s plans off the ground. He took the opportunity to tell Massey-Warren about an idea he had for a college class that would build off his work with Cyber Seniors. 

Now in its fifth iteration, this semester’s Intergenerational Writing course will pair 19 undergraduate students with community members over the age of 60 for semester-long research and writing projects. The projects can cover contentious current events and complex social issues. Students can expect to improve their writing skills, but the most impactful lessons often come from building relationships outside their own generation.

“Most young people and older people have not had a significant conversation with anybody with a 50-year age difference unless it’s a grandparent,” said Williamson.

Mutual mentorship

Community member and student working together

Previous class partners Margaret Andreason, left, and Kim Quinonez, right (Credit: Jack Williamson)

Massey-Warren led early offerings of the course. About a year ago, she passed the reins off to senior instructor Eric Klinger. Klinger has made some small changes—community members now sit in alongside undergraduates in every class instead of once a week—but he continues to use a “mutual mentorship” model to encourage candid, meaningful relationships. 

“What we really want is both people coming to the conversation as equals,” said Klinger. “Two people who are members of a generation who have had certain experiences that have shaped them, shaped the rest of their generation and who are able to share those with each other.” 

Students are each paired with one community member at the beginning of the semester. The pairs will spend hours together in the coming months, with students eventually writing biographies of their partners.

“You have these people that for all intents and purposes have a lot in common and a lot they can share with each other,” said Klinger. “But they don’t ever get that opportunity to meet or connect. This class creates that and I think especially between generations, that’s a really rare and important opportunity.”

Since Klinger began leading the class, each pair has explored their similarities and differences under the overarching theme of the American dream. This semester will culminate with a research paper exploring an aspect of the American dream, as it relates to their cross-generational experiences.

Last year, Klinger’s class confronted complex—and often contentious—subjects such as the war on drugs, immigration, Native American issues and climate change.

“I wanted some sort of topic where everyone has a common ground. Everyone in that room, whether they are conscious of it or not, has an American dream,” said Klinger. “One of the first things we discover in the class is that we all assume we have a shared idea of what the American dream is, but as you start asking individual people it really shifts.”

Students are responsible for writing the final paper, but community members share unique perspectives throughout the semester as de facto research assistants. 

“They both bring different skillsets to the table,” said Williamson. “The older community members are learning more about technologies and ways of communicating and the community members bring the perspective of having gone through difficult times before and resiliency.”

Raising the bar

The concept has already proven a success at building cross-generational relationships, but students are ultimately being evaluated on their growth as writers.  

Klinger has found in the past that students don’t always retain or apply unoriginal lesson plans about citations and punctuation. He thinks it’s easy to coast through seemingly inapplicable exercises in prose without a real-world connection.

“For a writing class to be effective, it has to have some kind of practical grab for the student,” said Klinger. “There has to be some way they connect with it intrinsically.”

The relationships help students find passion and deeper connections to their work. Klinger, who would someday like to see the curriculum adopted around the country, recalls stories of community members inviting student partners over for Thanksgiving and other pairs reconnecting years later from different parts of the world. 

At this point, Klinger has leaned in to the fact that many of his students are more interested in producing high-quality work for their community partners than for the grade. 

“Writing can be a tool, not just for fulfilling an assignment but really for changing the way you think and helping other people understand the way you think and why,” said Klinger.