College as Constant Restart: A Review of Practice for Life

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Sometimes books arrive for review like a gift: a new book, on exactly the right topic, at exactly the right time. This summer, as I was preparing to teach a first-year seminar for the first time at my new school, and to teach anything at all for the first time in three years, I was delighted to receive Lee Cuba, Nancy Jennings, Suzanne Lovett, and Joseph Swingle’s new book, Practice for Life: Making Decisions in College (Harvard UP, August 2016), an intensive study of student experiences at seven New England liberal arts colleges, including Trinity. It has been invaluable as a way of thinking about helping my students adjust to college.

Practice for Life followed some two hundred students from seven colleges–Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury, Smith, Wellesley, and Trinity–over five years, surveying them repeatedly during each academic year, and then again after graduation. They also did an intensive series of interviews with a subset of this group. The resulting book mostly allows the students to speak for themselves about such topics as the experience of time, a sense of connection to campus and friends, whether the campus counts as “home,” how they seek out advice, and their academic engagement. The students’ stories and observations yield a key insight that Cuba, et al. work to great effect: “Students don’t just start college and then finish it. They start and then re-start college many times” (3, emphasis in original).

A restart can take many forms: a desire to get better grades one semester; a declaration of, or change of, major; the decision to study abroad; choosing a roommate for sophomore year; picking clubs … as a moment’s thought makes clear, college offers students nearly continuous opportunities to reboot their college experience. In fact, the authors suggest that managing restarts is more or less what a liberal arts education is: “becoming liberally educated is a complex and messy process involving making decisions and learning from them.” As a result, they bristle at the suggestion that college is an ivory tower, or that students live in a bubble, separate from the real world. Instead, they argue, the “years spent in college are indeed ‘real life,’ and these years are a critical time in which [students] are repeatedly asked to make decisions that have the potential to shape practices they will need as older adults” (11).

The book has a way of presenting things that sound obvious, but tend to have far-reaching ramifications. A good example is the chapter on time, which begins with the point that “students experience college as a serial decision-making process punctuated by deadlines” (19). Well, yes. But the students’ stories make clear that the calendar of academic life makes it hard for students to focus on the present: you’re always supposed to be doing the next thing, whether that’s registering for classes, declaring a major, or applying for graduate school or jobs. As a result, students experience a lot of advice about college as “a form of bait-and-switch”:

I feel like first year they told us don’t worry about what you’re going to major in. You know, take any classes that you want and follow your interests. And then you get to sophomore year and it’s like that’s over. Like that sort of honeymoon eriod at [college]. So I don’t feel like I got a lot of advice that was pertinent to sophomore year first year … It’s just funny that it’s kind of what they tell you first year and then you really do have to decide sooner than they make it seem. And it goes by so fast. (36–37)

The constant orientation toward the future, as enacted by deadlines, makes college seem to go by even quicker than it actually does. The authors end up endorsing students who pursued balance in their time, rather than a “time management” approach to getting things done, as a way to help students stay focused in the present.

In the chapter on friendships, the authors explain that modern colleges now do so much to foster connection and community during the first year that the second year can see a kind of collapse of these broader links. This is particularly problematic when it comes to diversity of any kind. In part because students at liberal arts colleges tend to hang out most during the first year with people who live in their dorms, they tend to encounter (geographic, cultural, ethnic, religious, racial) difference in a much more habitual way. After the first year, however, students more frequently tend to focus on friends in their major, or from clubs or sports teams, which can have an homogenizing effect.

I found the chapter on engagement particularly interesting, as it explains why assessing academic engagement is so difficult. In the course of the interviews, it became clear that “Engagement is linked to specific classes, assignments, professors, pedagogies, subjects, and methodologies. As a consequence, it isn’t possible to describe students as being ‘engaged’ or ‘unengaged’ in global terms” (144). This chapter also features the book’s most provocative argument:

In large part, the investment that students have in the process of choosing a major has more to do with the messages (often subtle and unspoken) that colleges send students than with the students themselves. Majors are important to students, in large measure, because we tell them they are.

But can requiring students to declare a major sometimes act as an obstacle to engagement? … The assumption that digging deep will push students toward sustained and cumulative engagement may well be flawed and is likely connected to how faculty experience their engagement with the subjects that fascinate them. But promoting this path to engagement above others—by loading so much onto the declaration of a major–doesn’t work for many students. (162)

As someone who sat in interviews for student workers this week where one of the inevitable questions is “what do you plan to major in?,” I certainly feel the force of this argument. While the authors certainly recognize that some students enjoy and benefit from the progressive understanding of a subject implied by a major, they also argue for other models, including models that make explicit links across different departments, or even across specific pedagogical styles, such as community work or undergraduate research.

Practice for Life may not be for everyone. Certainly the students and campuses they depict are not typical of contemporary higher education: the students all live on campus, are all traditional college age, and have access to enough resources to be able to attend pricey New England colleges. (Even a student on a full scholarship would need, for example, to know that such a college exists, and that the sticker price isn’t the whole story. At my previous place of employment, I talked to many students who saw no other plausible possibility than the local regional comprehensive university.)

But for those interested in advising students, the vignettes collected here provide much food for thought, even if the specifics might be different. Maybe your students don’t go abroad for a semester or a year, but they do go away on co-op opportunitiies, and so forth. The idea that a junior year restart of friendships and other relationships on campus might be either a welcome break or a source of stress might well be helpful in talking with students. Similarly, developing a more capacious understanding of academic engagement, and how that can take very different forms at different moments in a student’s career, can only be helpful, as can a more explicit attention to developing students’ experiences with diversity of all forms beyond the first year.

Practice for Life is a book that might attract many audiences: faculty teaching first year students, or advising students; parents; administrators–indeed, almost anyone gripped by the challenges of helping students be successful–by “the challenge of managing the tension between college structure and student choice so that they can create supportive environments that cushion student decision-making but don’t excessively constrain it”–will find this book interesting. (And, to be honest, the reliance on qualitative data makes it a relatively quick read, and might make it an appropriate choice for reading groups. Hypothetically.)

Have you read Practice for Life? Let us know about it in comments!

Photo “Life in the Fast Lane” by Flickr user Catrin Austin / Creative Commons licensed BY–2.0

[Updated with two typos fixed on 9/9.--@jbj]

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