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Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 130-133
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Clear Voices and Sound Advice
Carrie King Wastal
Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds. By Richard J. Light. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Reading Richard J. Light's Making the Most of College recalled similar concerns that I had when I began the "college student" phase of life. While I did not have the same experiences as the many students interviewed by Light and his team of researchers, their experiences do resonate with and, in part, inform my response.
In Making the Most of College Light offers his readers an opportunity to hear students thinking about their four years of higher education. For these students, learning is not limited to what textbooks have taught them about biology or literature; they also value what interactions with their peers and teachers have taught them. Proceeding from their varied responses, the book offers suggestions, not only to students themselves but to teachers, advisers, and administrators, for enhancing the experience of higher education. It may well be common knowledge that students who actively engage in school get more out of it, but meaningful engagement with classes and curriculum remains difficult for teachers and students alike. However, Light asserts that fusing, rather than compartmentalizing, the academic and personal aspects of students' lives is what makes the college years a time of memorable learning. In this sense his book is a guide for students to turn to for ways to make the most of their college experience. It also shows teachers and administrators practical ways to give them learning opportunities that enhance classes and curriculum.
According to Light's research, students value most the moments when teachers, advisers, or other students push them to analyze their positions critically and uncover their assumptions about important issues. This process has a twofold effect. First, students become more engaged with course subjects. Second, effective learning takes place as students learn to articulate their positions and to link material reality with classroom discussions. Of course, teachers sometimes have students who do not realize the merit of this approach. More discussion of the difficulties that arise when students fail to connect real social issues with classroom study would have been helpful. Asking students to consider the viewpoints of others concerning religion, politics, race, class, or gender can make discussions uncomfortable, and uncomfortable discussions are frequently productive both for the individual and for the class. More [End Page 132] advice for engaging such students would help the teachers who work with them.
Light also broaches the subject of writing instruction. As a teacher in a lower-division writing program, I find that some students have not learned to value writing or realized that college demands a deeper analytic approach to it than high school did. Instead of embracing writing, they often feel frustrated and annoyed by the required course I teach. Students at Harvard University apparently feel the same way. Although the seniors whom Light interviews appreciate that their writing is stronger than it was, they also admit that, as freshmen, they did not fully appreciate writing instruction. Such findings become more interesting when juxtaposed with Sharon Crowley's (1998) proposal that freshman English, where most writing instruction occurs, should stand not as a first-year requirement but as a class among other available classes. While Light does not make this argument explicitly, his findings could be viewed as suggesting a similar possibility.
Light's research suggests the following response to freshman distaste for writing instruction: make students responsible for their own intellectual life by creating writing assignments that relate to real issues and by asking students to present their viewpoints to others. Such assignments directly engage students and make them responsible to themselves and to each other. In addition, writing instruction organized around a substantive context involves students in more than a superficial context. As Light says, writing about their summer vacations is not worthwhile to students. Writing about issues in which they have some kind of stake is. Incorporating Light's suggestions here is a pedagogical investment that could yield big results.