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  • Editors' Introduction:Righting the Ship
  • Jennifer L. Holberg and Marcy Taylor

"I'll leave you alone if you leave me alone." That is, I won't make you work too hard (read a lot, write a lot) so that I won't have to grade as many papers or explain why you are not performing well. The existence of this bargain is suggested by the fact that at a relatively low level of effort, many students get decent grades — B's and sometimes better. There seems to be a breakdown of shared responsibility for learning — on the part of faculty members who allow students to get by with far less than maximum effort, and on the part of students who are not taking full advantage of the resources institutions provide.

— George D. Kuh, "What We're Learning about Student Engagement from NSSE" (2003)

The "bargain" George Kuh describes above feels increasingly like the norm in higher education. In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa provocatively detail how the situation Kuh describes has developed in response to a systemwide educational culture in which the mission of undergraduate education is devalued across the board, especially as evidenced in the reward structures in place. We find their ideas worth considering in more depth here.

By their own reports, students seem to be working less. In their book, Arum and Roksa explain the limited effort of students, who self-reported, for example, that they spent less than one-fifth (16 percent) of their time each week on academics (including time spent in classes and labs and time spent [End Page 205] studying) (97). Furthermore, in a talk the authors gave at Central Michigan University in October 2011, they reported that this time spent studying has declined over the last four decades from a reported twenty-five hours per week in 1960 to twelve hours on average today, and a whopping 36 percent of students in their sample reported studying alone five or fewer hours per week or less than one hour per day. And yet, for students such behavior is not resulting in calamity — just the opposite: when examining the transcripts for those students, the researchers found that even spending fewer than five hours per week studying, the students' cumulative GPA averaged 3.16.

Rebekah Nathan's ethnography of college culture, My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (2005), refers to this situation as the "art of college management," in which students with a "credentialist-collegiate orientation" "control college by shaping schedules, taming professors, and limiting workload" (113). Limiting workload is achieved not only by skipping the assigned reading, ditching class, or spending time "studying" in groups rather than in focused solo sessions, but also by selecting courses that don't require the work in the first place. Arum and Roksa (2011: 76) support studies like Nathan's that suggest that "students . . . are choosing courses to minimize short-term investments of individual commitment required to obtain high course marks — not making deliberate rational calculations about courses' 'perceived returns' aligned with long-term personal goals." But can we really blame the students for manipulating a system to their benefit?

If the payoff for students of a "college management" mentality is a credential in return for limited effort (and the perception that a diploma with a decent GPA and the promise of a high-paying job is the product that colleges supply in return for the tuition), what is the payoff for faculty? Arum and Roksa describe the reward structures in higher education that place value on research output and, when teaching is factored at all into tenure and promotion decisions, that evaluate teaching primarily by student satisfaction and not by student learning. Arum and Roksa argue that "undergraduate education in many colleges and universities is only a limited component of a much broader set of faculty professional interests, and one that generally is not perceived as being significantly rewarded" (10). Their analysis goes deeper, but at the base is the premise that faculty are not sufficiently concerned with student learning — and therefore are complicit in creating a culture of ease rather than one of...


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pp. 205-208
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