How One Selective College Works

Title: How College Works
Author(s): Daniel F. Chambliss & Christopher G. Takacs  for Teachers College Record
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674049020, Pages: 224, Year: 2014
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How College Works reports on the methods and findings of an ambitious and elaborate 15-year ethnographic study of Hamilton College by the authors, long-standing faculty at that prestigious institution. Their project began in 1999 at the behest of then-President Eugene Tobin and the Dean of Faculty, David Paris; for the past ten years, funding has been provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Their study was intended to investigate what constitutes a good undergraduate education, and to use that information to recommend interventions to facilitate that outcome. The authors begin their story by posing questions that resonate with many in higher education: “In an era of fixed or even shrinking resources, can the quality of collegiate education be improved at no additional cost? Can students get more out of college without spending more money?” (p. 1) They argue yes and assert, “We believe there are methods—simultaneously reliable, powerful, available, and cheap—for improving what students gain from college.” (p. 1). The authors confidently argue that stakeholders—from senior executives to middle managers, and to some extent faculty, students, and their parents—can receive high dividends with a basic understanding of how college works.

The book itself is organized into eight chapters, first describing the origins of the study, its methods and ongoing development, and then the findings and their implications. The prose is narrative and non-technical, and weaves a number of illustrative stories about students and their navigation of the collegiate environment. The book includes many excerpts and examples—from an impressive 394 interview participants—spanning a variety of needs and viewpoints. Mundane tasks such as registration, studying, and other aspects of daily life at university are elaborated through their connection to broader policy decisions such as course sizes and scheduling. The authors demonstrate how decisions made by academic leaders affect students and faculty, illustrating a systemic review of the phenomena of institutional life.

I had two distinct and competing reactions to the book: a very positive and a very negative one. First, the sheer ambition and successful shepherding of such a long, complex, mixed-method, and creative ethnographic research program is to be lauded. The authors rightly note that this is a deep study of one prestigious and well-resourced institution. The students who attend Hamilton College are known to be intellectually and personally accomplished; they are also generally quite economically and experientially privileged. Chambliss and Takacs recognize that findings might be more applicable for other selective, residential liberal arts colleges than other types of institutions. There are no criticisms being given about this here: the College is described candidly, and readers can decide for themselves whether something that works at Hamilton might work at their own institution.


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