How College Works
reviewed by Jason Laker - December 21, 2014
How College Works reports on the methods and findings of an ambitious and elaborate 15-year ethnographic study of Hamilton College by the authors, long-standing faculty at that prestigious institution. Their project began in 1999 at the behest of then-President Eugene Tobin and the Dean of Faculty, David Paris; for the past ten years, funding has been provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Their study was intended to investigate what constitutes a good undergraduate education, and to use that information to recommend interventions to facilitate that outcome. The authors begin their story by posing questions that resonate with many in higher education: In an era of fixed or even shrinking resources, can the quality of collegiate education be improved at no additional cost? Can students get more out of college without spending more money? (p. 1) They argue yes and assert, We believe there are methodssimultaneously reliable, powerful, available, and cheapfor improving what students gain from college. (p. 1). The authors confidently argue that stakeholdersfrom senior executives to middle managers, and to some extent faculty, students, and their parentscan receive high dividends with a basic understanding of how college works.
The book itself is organized into eight chapters, first describing the origins of the study, its methods and ongoing development, and then the findings and their implications. The prose is narrative and non-technical, and weaves a number of illustrative stories about students and their navigation of the collegiate environment. The book includes many excerpts and examplesfrom an impressive 394 interview participantsspanning a variety of needs and viewpoints. Mundane tasks such as registration, studying, and other aspects of daily life at university are elaborated through their connection to broader policy decisions such as course sizes and scheduling. The authors demonstrate how decisions made by academic leaders affect students and faculty, illustrating a systemic review of the phenomena of institutional life.
I had two distinct and competing reactions to the book: a very positive and a very negative one. First, the sheer ambition and successful shepherding of such a long, complex, mixed-method, and creative ethnographic research program is to be lauded. The authors rightly note that this is a deep study of one prestigious and well-resourced institution. The students who attend Hamilton College are known to be intellectually and personally accomplished; they are also generally quite economically and experientially privileged. Chambliss and Takacs recognize that findings might be more applicable for other selective, residential liberal arts colleges than other types of institutions. There are no criticisms being given about this here: the College is described candidly, and readers can decide for themselves whether something that works at Hamilton might work at their own institution.
The authors also provide many compelling examples of faulty conventional wisdom on organizing academic programs and achieving institutional goals. They offer a particularly good explanation as to why a focus on small classes (one element in national rankings) actually interferes with better educational experiences for students. Because of these kinds of examples, academic managers would benefit from reading this book. Faculty might benefit from the stories about students preferences, aversions, and habits regarding various courses and assignments; they may even find them actionable for their teaching approach.
The book was also provocative, at least to this reader, because of what it is missing. This reaction stems from my unusual career trajectory: beginning as an entry-level Residence Hall Director, moving through the administrative ranks at six different institutions in the US and Canada, overseeing Student Affairs Divisions at two different universities, and teaching in several disciplines until becoming a tenured professor in a graduate counselor education department. This peculiar background defied a hegemony of disciplinary silos and pigeonholes of role and institutional type. This is by no means intended as a CV, but rather to explain the basis for substantial frustration experienced while reading.
The authors point out that, From an administrators perspective, then, students lived world can seem quite limited, their lines of sight rather short and their angle of vision rather narrow (p. 2). This prefaces a discussion of how students have limited ideas about what they need to be successful, with an example given about their preference for suite-style dormitories even though sharing a bathroom increases peer interactions. This reviewer would extend the assertion by suggesting no one person or group has an adequate vision for what is happening, what is needed, or whether an intervention would work at a college. This forms the basis for the primary critique of the text.
To be specific, the books fundamental question of how college works is answered mainly in terms of faculty-student relationships. There is no question that the official reason to attend college is to study for a degree in a particular discipline. Though there are plenty of less official reasons, it seems clear that attendance, retention, learning, and degree achievement areand should befundamental; however, even this cant happen without involving other people in the process: counselors, tutors, advisers, residence staff, disability resource specialists, dining hall cooks and servers, physicians, nurses, and the myriad of people who offer creative and committed attention to students. Without all of these people, college doesnt work.
This text would also benefit from a less clinical treatment of social identities (e.g., race, class, gender, sexuality) and their implications for the questions explored in the book. References come across as incidental or underdeveloped. For example, the authors write, A fair number of students ... say they prefer faculty-student relationship be and remain at this strictly professional level. Its hard to know whether this is always a true preference; some international and minority students told us they were hesitant to attempt any contact with professors outside of class, whether or not they want it (pp. 52-53). There is such a rich set of possibilities for analysis here: such as what a true preference is or isnt, and how to find out; or whether certain students hold historic hesitations about interacting with people with authority over their success, and how to overcome that to achieve socially safe and authentic relationships that increase retention and learning. The retention, learning, and satisfaction rate differences between demographically different students call for such analysis, but this text doesnt sufficiently pursue it.
The authors made certain to address the expected critique that Hamilton College is an elite institution, and that the study is not generalizable. Thats fair enough, but I would argue that if there is an elitism problem, it is not about Hamilton College. Rather, the foundational question of how college works almost completely ignores its companion question, who makes it work, and privileges the faculty perspective in too narrow a way. The questions are inextricably bound, and it is not an abstraction or some egalitarian sensibility to note it.
Even in the context of a small residential college such as Hamilton, the relative intimacy and expensive tuition that facilitates greater faculty-student interaction has its limitations. Per term, full-time students will attend four or five courses, some faculty office hours and tutorials, and possibly the occasional charming and meaningful experience of a meal or research experience with a professor. But students will also live in communal arrangements, participate in campus activities, and socialize or work in the host community; they may also face medical or psychological issues, existential angst, trouble at home, and a host of daily business demands such as financial aid, transportation needs, and use of social and hygienic facilities. These are but a few of the things missing in the study, or mentioned only in passing. Even a cursory review of Hamiltons website will demonstrate a rich collection of resources and opportunities available to students aside from its formidable faculty, and these types of offerings are not limited to prestigious institutions. Had these elements of the College been studied and reported on in earnest, I believe the book would have considerable applicability to many institutional contexts. The authors do a fantastic job of explaining how courses or academic programs work; academic administrators and faculty concerned with improving their pedagogical approaches would benefit from reading it. Still, more study is needed to explain how college works, when and why it doesnt, and what can be done about it.