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Student Engagement in Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Approaches for Diverse Populations

reviewed by Winston C. Thompson - January 16, 2009

coverTitle: Student Engagement in Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Approaches for Diverse Populations
Author(s): Shaun R. Harper and Stephen John Quaye (Eds.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415988519, Pages: 329, Year: 2008
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To the higher education administrator/scholar of the late twentieth century, it may seem obvious that student engagement in higher education, minimally identified as “participation in educationally effective practices, both inside and outside of the classroom” (p. 2), produces worthwhile outcomes. In as early as the introductory chapter of their edited volume Student Engagement In Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Approaches for Diverse Populations, Harper and Quay note that research literature identifies positive effects in “cognitive and intellectual development; college adjustment; moral and ethical development; practical competence and skills transferability; the accrual of social capital; and psychosocial development, productive racial and gender identity formation, and positive images of self” (p. 3). From this early presentation of gains via student engagement, it is clear that the contributing writers in Harper and Quay’s project do not serve as mere apologists for engagement; it is assumed that that case has already been closed. Rather, they seek to present administrators and educators with practical models of theory wedded to action so that engagement might be possible in diverse populations.

Members of a Student Development Theory course taught by Harper at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, the contributing authors of this text form a diverse group representing mostly Ph.D. and Ed.D. students with various histories and trajectories. The authors are researchers and practitioners with foci and experience in urban education, student affairs/residential programs and athletics to name a few. These diverse backgrounds reinforce the underlying thesis of this collection of essays from the above-mentioned course in that they highlight the many contexts and resulting concerns that are relevant in sculpting useful engagement strategies.

While the chapters are diverse in their content, ranging from discussions of engagement for international students, race and gender issues, and commuter students, the layout of each chapter remains uniform and as such is easily accessible for either a smooth read of the entire text or a fast flip for reference (with highlighted engagement strategies). Many chapters begin with vignettes that provide a concrete foundation and entrance point for the subsequent discussion. After this brief narrative introduction, the reader is presented with a statement and general exploration of the germane issues that must be addressed in an attempt to increase the possibility of student engagement. These issues are then met with a theoretical framework that attempts to provide a more substantive discussion of the previously raised issues. The chapters conclude with multiple engagement strategies, which offer solutions to the particular constraints of the situations in which the pre-engaged students exist.

It is not hard to imagine that some may take issue with the engagement strategies found at each chapter’s end. Many readers may claim that the strategies are too simplistic (surveys, speaker series) with others perhaps seeming too grandiose (campus wide redesign of syllabi, restructuring of residential halls). This could be a fair observation. Some of the strategies lack detail and read a bit like a student affairs wish list, executable in only a best-case scenario of unlimited resources and personnel. I hasten to add, this is no shortcoming of the text, but perhaps a misunderstanding of the project. Harper, Quay and their contributors are not offering a solutions manual for the difficult and important matters of diversity regarding student engagement. Unfortunately, there is no calculus with which to resolve these issues. Administrators cannot simply open the index of this text and locate a specific page containing a resolution to the engagement barriers facing their specific student body. Instead, when read together, when taken in their totality, these individual chapters become a chorus, offering hints at the motivating impulses of serious engagement practices. Administrators and educators are offered theoretical frameworks. They are offered strategies of thought. They are offered new perspectives from which to view their campus, their students and most importantly, their own practice. This is the core strength of the text.

In her Foreword, Bensimon identifies the writing of these essays/chapters as a practice of engagement for Harper’s students. I would like to take this observation one step further as I consider the reading of this book to be the very same. Harper and Quay have edited a volume that relocates the weight of student engagement by alleviating the burden generally placed upon the student as the contributing authors call for administrators and educators to embrace their share of the collective responsibility. In doing so, Harper and Quay hope to create participation, discussion, critical thinking and action in educators and administrators considering student engagement (p. 2). This book succeeds in these goals by way of the reasons mentioned above. It is thus perhaps fitting that Kuh ends his Afterword by challenging the reader to take this text and go forward, exploring the questions, problems and alternatives that are raised (p. 317). Arguably, this is the central goal of this collection, as this engagement seems to create further possibilities for the engagement of others.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 16, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15494, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 11:02:04 PM

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About the Author
  • Winston Thompson
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    WINSTON C. THOMPSON, MA, EdM, is a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University as well as an adjunct Instructor at Hofstra University. His interests include access and retention in Higher Education with a focus on social and political philosophical approaches to these issues as they tie into larger social justice concerns.
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