Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses/Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa: Reflections

Monday, March 28, 2011

When you pull back the heavy curtains of my classroom at the University of Pennsylvania (an old room in an old once-house), you find yourself face-to-face with this fine addition to the Wharton School.  I survey this scene, before my students arrive.  I wonder what I can do, what I must do, to prepare my sixteen for the world. 

It's the perpetual, perpetuating question.  Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's new study, Academically Adrift, raises the ante.  Across the nation, according to the authors, students enrolled in U.S. universities and colleges aren't reading enough, aren't writing enough, and aren't learning enough.  The country that needs them to reflect seriously, analyze well, and write coherently falters and corporations lose hope (or hire overseas talent for the harder tasks).  This country's future is at risk, thanks to grade inflation, easing standards, and a willingness, on the part of many, to look the other way as students party more and study less.  And very little, the authors argue, is being done to fix the problem, for few see the situation as a crisis:  "No actors in the system are primarily interested in academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence," write Arum and Roksa.  "Limited learning on college campuses is not a crisis because the institutional actors impicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes they seek...."

The students enrolled in the authors' study reported spending only 12 hours per week studying, while 37% of students, the authors say, spend less than five hours per week preparing for their courses.  A shockingly low percentage of students are expected to read more than 40 pages a week or write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester.  And yet, "[s]tudents' lack of academic focus at today's colleges... has had little impact on their grade point averages and often only relatively modest effects on their progress towards degree completion as they have developed and acquired 'the art of college management,' in which success is achieved primarily not through hard work but through 'controlling college by shaping schedules, taming professors, and limiting workload.'"

I, for the record, refuse to be tamed.  I recognize, as this study also does, that a teacher can matter in the life of a student—that, while, it might be easy and more popular to let a good student stay merely good or to glance away from another student's struggles, while it might be nice to slack off now and then from the more than the 30 hours I spend each week preparing for and teaching a single course, I cannot and will not slack off. The measure of my achievement at Penn is certainly not my adjunct professor salary and certainly not the evaluations the students choose to give me at semester's end.  Ultimately I must be measured by how effectively, how purposefully I have insisted that these students commit to and exhibit actual growth—greater competency, deeper knowing, enriched capability.  I make my students read—a lot—and I read to them.  I require my students to write each week.  I believe in my students, and sometimes that belief is demonstrated by perhaps unwelcome requests:  Do it again, and do it better. And after that, do more.

Does this make me popular?  I don't know.  Does it make me rich?  Not in the least.  Can I write (which is equivalent to research for the science/math crew) while I am teaching?  I cannot.  It would be easier to do this another way, but these are our students, this is our future, this is our shot to get it right. I read Academically Adrift nodding my head and shaking it, too.  I read it hoping that someone will listen.  That teaching the way teaching must be done will be rewarded in a fashion that will attract those who can do it well.

Because I work in corporate America when I am not on that Penn campus.  I see what colleges are graduating.  I see the erosion of the English language, I see how utterly inconvenient logic and grammar have become.  If we can't fix what is happening on college campuses, we will not save ourselves.  Teaching has to matter; it has to be supported.


Lilian Nattel said...

Well said Beth, and they are lucky to have you.

Unknown said...

Your students are indeed blessed.

Kelly H-Y said...

Well said ... your students (and UP!) are lucky to have you!

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