Sunday, February 27, 2011

Academically Adrift

I'm reading a book recommended to me by my colleague Scot McKnight on the state of learning and teaching in America's universities and colleges called Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. I'm only into the second chapter but the problem is presented very clearly at the beginning: Students in college are not learning much while there.

A number of points have already got me thinking. First, students in college have little to no academic focus. Perhaps you've met one of those described as "drifting dreamers": students with "high ambitions, but no clear life plans for reaching them" (3). These students enter college and are largely "academically adrift". What was not surprising to me since I have experienced is that despite lacking academic focus college students are not suffering in their classes with lower grades. Why? Because, according to the authors, students have developed "the art of college management". This skill refers to their ability succeed not by hard work, but by "controlling college schedules, taming professors and limiting workload" (4). Students "preferentially enroll in classes with instructors who grade leniently" (4). At my institution, students vote with their feet. I've learned to adjust my course expectations so that I don't have a great migration after the first week of school. One does not have the luxury to stand on principle and demand rigor, when your classes sizes are monitored and less than 10 is unacceptable.

Second, Arum and Roksa make the point that the academic environment on most college and university campuses does not promote academics as its primary element of culture. Today what is encouraged is athletics, social life, and extra-curricular activities. These say nothing to the fact that many students are now working a heavy part-time job of over 20 hours a week.

Third, a consumeristic approach to education and "credentialism" are two interesting and interrelated points. Students today for a number of cultural reasons view education from a purely consumeristic perspective. This approach is fueled by the idea of credentialism. The assumption is that an education serves as a means of admission to a job or future success. What one needs is a credential to get a job or attain a certain position in the market place; thus, one gets an education purely for this end. With these two assumptions at work it is no wonder that students seek to receive services within an academic institution that "will allow them, as effortlessly and comfortably as possible" attain "valuable educational credentials that can be exchanged for later labor market success" (17).

Fourth, Arum and Roksa suggest that part of the problem with the lack of learning taking place in colleges and universities is that professors are encouraged to care more about their profession than about their students. This was a difficult pill to swallow, but I do think that there is a tendency, at least for me, to want to devote less time preparing lectures, teaching, grading, and advising and more time to scholarly activity.


Paul D. Adams said...

RE the last point...
Since being removed a few years now from teaching intro philosophy and world religions, I realize that I loved my disciipline (philosophy) far more than my students, most days. Not sure this was healthy, since the students may very well go on to embrace the discipline as their vocation.

P.S. Thanks, Mike, for the sample copy of Journal for the Study of Paul and his Letters at the book displays ETS, Nov, 2010!

My Kul said...

Food for thought Mike, thanks. By the way, want to come to Perth in August and see Scot? Love to have you here!

My Kul said...

Oops, sorry Joel! Thought it was Mike writing.

Joel Willitts said...

By the way, it's Joel's post :~)! And yes I would love to come to Perth not so much to see Scot however!

mbrankatelli said...

Joel, do you feel this trend is reflected in the schools you have taught at (Moody and NP)? Does and should being a Christian institution affect this issue?

Joel Willitts said...

I have certainly felt it in the schools where I've taught. I think Christian schools generally are less "publish or perish" so the learning should theoretically be better in theses schools. However, I don't know if that is the case. Students at NPU who take my courses for GE credit definitely reflect the description. And I'm often surprised at how unprepared our students are as they enter college.

DavidABooth said...


I'm a pastor, who has never served as a professor, so this comment comes from someone who has not sat on your side of the desk:

My own sense of the seminary professors that I have had is that, on balance, they spent too little time on research in their academic fields rather than too much. One of the gifts that professors can give to their students is to be truly excellent and passionate about their field of expertise - and then to share that passion and expertise with their students.

My concern is that the idea of "focusing on students" can easily become an excuse for academic laziness on the part of professors. Now that I am solidly into middle age, I am surprised at how little serious scholarship many seminary professors have published over long stretches of time (say the last ten years).


pennoyer said...

How our colleges and universities are faring is a serious subject - thanks for your thoughts and the reference Joel. If you have a moment for related humor you might want to look for a youtube video of "Father Guido Sarducci" as he describes his idea of the Five Minute University. As usual, there is an unfortunate grain of truth to most humor! For now, at least, it is located here:

mr.scrivener said...

People on the street don't find anything at all credible, let alone creditable about colleges or universities.

Most know its an elitist environment for the 'ruling class', where rich kids can do anything they like and still make CEO of dad's corporation.

But now, in Canada, universities are being taken over one by one by hard-core feminists who hate men and disenfranchise them at every opportunity.

In Socialist Canada, women now control a massive amount of the middle-class jobs that (a) pay good money, and (b) exercise control over men directly and indirectly at the rubber-hits-the-road level. The agenda is a kind of socialist/communist secular humanism in which men are mice who do what they are told, and only speak in Orwellian "politically-correct-ese".

For instance, Winnepeg U. is run by women for women, while Trent U. is a lesbian whore-house.