Tuesdays with Morrie

Bill Jensen, MSU student, connects and chats with Bud Kumlien of the Bozeman Lodge. Photo by Matt Wiegand

An intergenerational writing project, entitled Tuesdays with Morrie, is giving MSU students the opportunity to write about history using one of the best sources available — those who lived through it.

Started in 2010 by Jill Davis, and adjunct professor of English, Tuesdays with Morrie is a writing study that Davis offers to her College Writing II classes each semester. Interested students were paired based on their energy levels with elderly volunteers from Bozeman Lodge, an assisted-living home. Tomorrow evening, Dec. 7, the 10 participating students will present a paper to their senior partners recounting the partner’s life story — the final phase of the project.

“In addition to social skills, this project gives students a sense of the lineage of time and connects them to the past,” Davis said, describing a benefit of the project.

Through Tuesdays with Morrie, she added, former MSU chemistry Professor Charles Caughlan taught his student partner, Cody West, about the women’s rights movement on campus while he was a professor, exemplifying how the project engages students on a personal level.

“We have formed a relationship that goes way beyond interviewing,” said student Heather Demorest, whose senior is battling Parkinson’s Disease. This project has shown her the value in getting to know older generations.

According to Garrett Pewe, a second-time student participant, Tuesdays with Morrie has also taught students the value in knowing their audience, as these papers have real readers: the elderly partners. Davis explained that the students have learned the importance of revision — some have revised their papers up to nine times — and hopes this helps students “realize that they have a voice in their writing.”

At this point, Davis said, students have 30 to 40 pages of notes, and that it is an essential skill to learn how to select what is important and what can be left out. They are not simply writing a paper, she explained: “They are crafting a paper.”

Each year, Davis tries to focus on a different elderly population. The first year, students paired up with volunteers at Aspen Pointe Retirement Home, and last year the project focused on members of Highgate Senior Living.

Over the course of the semester, students heard from Dawn Tarabochia, MSU professor of health and human development and president of the Montana Gerontology Society, and Bill Serdahley, a Bozeman hospice chaplain. Both discussed topics such as aging and the end of life. These discussions give the students a better perspective on their partners’ situations, Davis explained, as most of the seniors are in their late 80s and 90s.

Davis also had her students watch “Tuesdays with Morrie,” the movie adapted from the novel of the same name. The project carries this namesake due to the similar interview process, which Davis believes makes a great model for the project. Just like in the book, she said, students form a relationship through spending time with a senior and experience themes such as acceptance, happiness and love.

As Davis explained, “It gives students a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.”