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Discussing ‘How College Works,’ Chapter 3

Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs are the authors of our current book, How College Works. They have kindly agreed to guide our discussion. If you don’t have the book, it’s not too late. Try your campus library.

The discussion will take place on Twitter (#ChronBooks, @DanFChambliss, @ChrisGTakacs). Our other featured participants are listed to the right.

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From Dan Chambliss:

Chapter 2, “Entering,” sounded themes that are familiar to most college employees. But in Chapter 3, “Choosing,” the argument of the book becomes a bit less predictable.

The title itself is mildly ironic: The apparently wide-open choices that students nowadays enjoy are in practice closely constrained, in ways that colleges themselves often don’t realize. When students “choose” classes, teachers, and majors they in fact work within narrow confines. Students’ own abilities and preparation, the availability of courses and majors, the limitations of prerequisites, locations, and other scheduling factors, all limit their options.

Some of our research findings are empirical, others are logically derived. The sequence of a student’s career is crucial: Introductory courses are often decisive, therefore the teachers who teach them matter a lot. For mentorship to develop, students must spend some time with potential mentors, not just “be assigned” an adviser. “Advising” is done not only, or even mainly, by people called “advisers”: Other adults contribute, and so does the schedule. Indeed, scheduling—a specific case of how colleges do or don’t make pathways easily available—is a remarkably powerful tool, often underutilized (some community colleges excel at it, though).

Readers of How College Works occasionally get sidetracked by the “dinner at a professor’s house” example. Our point isn’t that “dinner is necessary”; it’s that any personal contact, even a little, can be quite powerful. What works on one campus may not on another.

“Choosing” was the sample chapter that Chris and I submitted to Harvard University Press with our initial book proposal; it won us the contract. I was especially pleased with the opening sentence (“In an inescapable irony…”), which conveys a lot.

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From Chris Takacs:

In the early stages of writing the book, Dan and I started thinking about how it might be useful to think about students’ interests (in academic work, classes, fields of study, extracurriculars) as outcomes. Much of the discussion about the organization of college, curriculum, and pedagogy treats students as having relatively fixed interests—some students are quantitatively oriented, some are creative artsy types, and so on.

In other words, college leaders (and many researchers) treat students’ academic interests as independent variables—variables that produce outcomes but are themselves pretty much set in stone. In our interviews with students, they clearly thought of themselves this way too, insisting “I’m not really a math person” or “I’m more of a humanities person.” But what we also found was that students’ predilections for or aversions to certain areas of study were themselves often a product of the students’ educational experiences. For many students, their preferences developed in their first year—a particularly bad math class might have turned them off anything quantitative, or a great language teacher got them interested in a culture they previously knew nothing about. Certainly, in many cases, students’ preferences were developed before they even set foot on a college campus.

But we also found that with these students, despite coming into college determined to take or avoid certain fields, a particularly good or bad experience in that field could change their mind entirely. A student who “isn’t a math person” actually became one after having a great experience in an intro calculus class, or a student who felt that he or she couldn’t learn a word in any language other than English became near-fluent in Chinese by graduation (these are actual examples of students in our study).

Preferences for academic fields aren’t fixed—they are dynamic, shaped by the experiences students have with them. And this is a good thing. If organized properly, with the right (good) teachers in the right places, a college curriculum can help students overcome their fear of, or even downright dislike for, certain kinds of knowledge and work.

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