- Taming the River: Negotiating the Academic, Financial, and Social Currents in Selective Colleges and Universities
Since sequels have become quite popular in movies, it should come as no surprise that the trend has expanded to scholarly publishing. Yes, following The Shape of the River (Bowen & Bok, 1998) and The Source of the River (Massey, Charles, Lundy, & Fischer, 2003) the latest book in this unintentional trilogy is Taming the River. While on first blush my introduction may seem a bit whimsical, the book is a far cry from whimsy and provides serious analyses of a large group of diverse undergraduates. Whereas the first book, The Shape of the River, focused on the aftermath of affirmative action, the second book, The Source of the River, took the next step in examining the social origins of students in elite institutions. The latest book allows the reader to dive into deeper waters and to examine the predictors of student success. According to the authors the book analyzes the student experience as they "wade into the crosscutting currents of college life" (p. 3). The book further expands the river metaphor by carefully guiding the reader through the academic and social lives of the students while they experience the first two years of college. Through analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF) including two questionnaires plus four follow-up interviews of the sample, the authors present findings and conclusions from a large sample of ethnically diverse students who enrolled in elite institutions in 1999.
The book is divided into nine chapters with clever river metaphor titles such as "Entering the Current," Staying Afloat Financially," and "College at Midstream." Especially useful are the appendices that provide the full questionnaires as well as basics on the social scales used in the analyses.
In the chapter "Staying Afloat Academically" the authors present their findings on the predictors of grades earned in the first two years of college. They report differences in elected majors by gender and ethnic group. While many of the differences follow the expected "Asians are more likely to major in the sciences" and "women are more likely avoid math and science," it is a bit troubling to learn that these differences continue to persist despite so many efforts to attract students of color and women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. But even more troubling was the finding that by the end of the sophomore year, students of color were lagging their White and Asian counterparts in the number of courses necessary for graduation. [End Page 544]
Since the authors found that the students of color were more likely to find academic support in their ethnically similar peers than their White counterparts, the chapter on "Staying Afloat Socially" merits special importance. While the chapter clearly shows that all students are guilty of trying to fit too much into their lives, African Americans appear to be multitasking at a higher rate than the other groups. There was a paradoxical nature to the findings as the study reports a positive relationship between various types of social life and grades yet such activities such as living in fraternities and sororities modestly lowered grades. The reader must be careful in assigning causation as it is clear that the roots of the relationships are not clearly defined or understood.
The social milieu for students of color cannot ignore the undercurrents of being a "one of few" on these elite campuses. Perhaps it is not surprising that African American students reported a preponderance of social interactions with other African Americans. But the insularity extended to White students as well, as they also reported more "in-group" relationships. The book also delves into intergroup romance and reports some very interesting findings among the ethnic groups.
Perhaps the hardest battle in the river is to stay afloat financially. On average African American and Latino students came to their elite colleges...