21st-Century Campus Culture

Brian Taylor

October 11, 2011

Almost every academic I know has fond memories of late-night dorm-room bull sessions about the meaning of life. Sometimes fueled by various legal and illegal substances, and sometimes simply the accidental product of everyone coming home from libraries and study lounges at the same time on a Tuesday at midnight, those sessions constitute, for many of us in the profession, a conversational ideal that becomes harder and harder to replicate in our adult lives.

I certainly cling to my memories of those conversations, and sometimes I think I went into graduate school hoping to become the kind of faculty member who could recreate such profound dialogues in my classroom. I envisioned myself sitting in a circle with eager undergraduates debating the vision of the world offered by Ian McEwan or Jeanette Winterson, and arguing about whether or how to apply it to our own lives.

After a dozen years of full-time teaching, I've discovered that most of my classroom time has to be spent helping students become more careful readers, better researchers, and clearer writers. But I have always imagined that those meaning-of-life conversations were still happening somewhere on my campus, even if I was no longer privy to them.

Two books I read this summer about contemporary campus culture, however, have left me convinced that I'm living with an outdated picture of late-night life in the dorms—and left me wondering about the implications that a changing campus culture may have for our teaching.

I started out the summer reading My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (Cornell University Press, 2005), the anthropologist Cathy Small's account of a year she spent enrolled as a first-year student at Northern Arizona University. Writing under the pseudonym Rebekah Nathan, she describes the experience—orientation sessions, classroom time, her life in the dorms—through an anthropological lens.

The results are eye-opening in many ways, but what struck me first and foremost was her conclusion that most students do not have a curious and thriving intellectual life outside of their courses. The late-night discussions that I imagined my students having in their dorm rooms about the meaning of life, according to Small, are simply not happening.

"Outside the classroom," she writes, "and outside of specific academically or professionally focused clubs or events, students just didn't appear to talk among themselves about the ideas presented in their classes or the issues of the day. The informal public spaces of the university—and much, I suspected, of the private space—was directed toward other topics."

Small's narrative offers many examples of what she saw as a substantive—and growing—separation between the academic life of the college and the life that students led whenever they were not in class.

"The undergraduate worldview, as I came to understand it," she writes, "linked intellectual matters with in-class domains and other formal areas of college life, including organized clubs and official dorm programs. 'Real' college culture remained beyond the reach of university institutions and personnel, and centered on the small, ego-based networks of friends that defined one's personal and social world. Academic and intellectual pursuits thus had a curiously distant relation to college life."

Small counts that as one of the most surprising realizations of her freshman-year experiment.

Her experience, she explains, "led me to one of the most sobering insights I had as a professor-turned-student: how little intellectual life seemed to matter in college. This is not to say that no one cared about her education or that everyone cut all his classes. Rather, what I observed was that engagement in the philosophical and political issues of the day was not a significant part of college student culture."

I wanted to shrug off her conclusions and dismiss her book as the product of one unrepresentative campus and as, perhaps, the unique set of circumstances in which she conducted her experiment. One can easily imagine, after all, that traditional-age students might treat a middle-age woman living in their presence warily, and her experiences with them might not reflect what really happens in the dorms.

But the next book I picked up was Susan D. Blum's My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell, 2009). Blum, also an anthropologist, set out to offer what she describes as "a genuine anthropological study of American college students at a selective, residential college." Although plagiarism forms the explicit subject matter of her book, she comes to many of the same conclusions about campus culture, and about the separation between intellectual and student life, that so surprised me in Nathan's book.

I would have had a hard time shrugging off those ideas after seeing them described in two such carefully researched books, but Blum's work made it even more difficult for me, since her descriptions of an altered campus culture centered on the students and campus life at the University of Notre Dame, my undergraduate alma mater—the very locus of my fond memories of a thriving late-night intellectual culture.

Blum's work also set me wondering about the implications of this divide between intellectual and student life for the profession as a whole, and for what we do in our classrooms. I wrote to her and asked her to help me think through some of those implications.

The first question I had was about her emotional reaction to the results of her work: Did she find it all as depressing as I did?

"My reaction," she wrote in an e-mail, "was largely relief, fascination, and despair, all entangled. Knowing what college life is like now for many students at residential colleges explained a lot about my experience with students, and it has ended my tendency to get upset when students didn't seem to be focusing as much attention on their coursework as I thought appropriate. I think my expectations are much more realistic now, so the entire experience of teaching is less depressing than it was when I couldn't understand why I couldn't motivate students to be absorbed in their work."

Small and Blum's work gave me some measure of that relief as well, since they both presented such a clear picture of the challenges we face in drawing students into the important questions and issues of our disciplines. But I will confess to feeling more despair than relief. So I asked Blum whether she thought it was possible still to transform campus culture in order to inject more intellectual life into student life.

"The short answer," she wrote back, "is no."

But she gave me a longer answer as well: "The more I teach and understand about students' lives, the more I see their profound curiosity. But we have to connect with it on their terms. Teaching always involves a meeting among many parties.

"I have seen students get excited about things they are learning in their classes, whether it is a project they are working on or just a new way of thinking about the world. But I think we have to make the case for each subject. It can't just be fulfilling requirements, if we want it to matter to students. And we are bound to miss a number of them. We are kidding ourselves if we think that all students are likely to become intellectuals. But there are many ways to become moral, productive, contributing human beings besides through the life of academic pursuits."

Most important, I wanted to know whether she had changed her teaching practices in any way as a result of her research.

"Absolutely!" she said. "I work very hard now to get to know my students individually and to engage them. I try to think about why my particular subject might be useful or interesting to them, even if they did come to the class because it is a requirement. I constantly rethink both the content and the process of every course. I almost always have students lead some portion of the course, when they have to delve more deeply into a particular topic and to actively involve themselves in directing their learning."

Those all seemed like good ideas to me. But her final comment held the most meaning for me—and for anyone else who might read Small's and Blum's books (both of which I highly recommend) and come away from them frustrated or depressed.

"I have stopped joining the chorus of complaint about 'kids these days,'" she said, "lamenting their reading, writing, thinking abilities. My responsibility is to invite them into a fascinating world, through anthropology, and to try to make something happen on the other side of the door."

That comment helped remind me that I should not let go of that idealism and enthusiasm for great discussions that inspired me to join the teaching profession. Although I can't leave behind the practical tasks of helping students become better readers and writers, I should not lose sight of the larger questions that are asked and answered in my discipline, and that I believe can help us live our lives more richly, more ethically, and more wisely.

I have no control over what students do at 2 a.m. in their dorm rooms. But I do have control over what goes on in my classroom. And if students aren't spending time with one another connecting the stories of Ian McEwan and Jeanette Winterson to their own lives, then maybe—as Blum suggests, and as she has done in her own teaching—I have to work a little harder to help them do so in the time they spend with me.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College, in Massachusetts, and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at