I recently read How College Works, by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs (Harvard University Press, 2014). The book details the authors’ study of Hamilton College, a small, private undergraduate college in Clinton, New York. This review will focus on what the book has to offer for administrators and faculty. I’ll write a separate review that discusses the author’s recommendations to new college students.*
Chambliss and Takacs argue that the benefits students acquire from college are a function of institutionally-shaped campus-based social interactions. Encounters with professors and peers, especially early in students’ college experiences, result in social networks that affect what and how students learn. The “pervasive influence” of these relationships makes college “less a collection of programs than a gathering of people” (p. 5, emphasis original).
Schools need to increase the chances that students will form the social relationships that are most beneficial to them, which means deploying limited resources where they will do the most good. If your university decides, as mine recently did, to mandate a first-year seminar for incoming students, then it better staff those seminars with its most enthusiastic and engaging faculty members, regardless of their fields or departments. Doing otherwise sends a terrible message to new students: that they aren’t valued and should go to college somewhere else.
Maximizing the effect of the most talented instructors means getting them in front of as many students as possible, which might require that they be freed from particular departmental, research, or service obligations. It also means scheduling those courses for days and times when the largest number of students can enroll in them.
As the authors state at the end of the book, the fundamental task for institutions of higher education is to decide who the right people are and to create pathways that make it easy for them to connect with each other:
“Which professors can do the most good? For which students? And when? Which students do you want to bring to your campus, and which ones not? Who are the students you most want to support? Around which groups and activities do you want to build your institution’s culture?” (p. 174).
If these questions are answered effectively, students will feel like members of a community instead of customers. At the same time, the college or university will have identified its brand and the market in which it wants to compete.
*postscript: the review for college students is here.