As higher education institutions across the nation seek to expand their campuses, particularly with multi-million dollar recreation centers and elaborately designed residence halls, students in these same institutions are looking for something different—the capacity to survive the social experience of college. In How College Works, by Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Tackacs (2014), the authors explore several facets of the college experience through the eyes of the college student, specifically zoning in on the face-to-face human interaction that builds a student’s sense of social curiosity. Because a student’s sense of belonging is the primary focus, the authors challenge the idea that budget cuts in higher education prevent students from receiving a valuable collegiate experience. While the authors recognize that physical classroom time is not to be ignored, the text presents an argument in favor of student involvement outside the classroom through activities such as Freshman Orientation, Greek Life, Residence Life, and Study Abroad.
How College Works is framed in a way that allows the college student to contribute evidence of how his/her physical experience builds a sense of social belonging. Chambliss and Tackacs conduct a series of interviews at Hamilton College, a small liberal arts school in New York. The interviews include several students in various stages of the college career, noting the details of personal connections that are made (or lack thereof) with peers and adults alike. For example, a student is asked about the first week of school, openly stating, “relationships weren’t strong” and they seemed “forced” during Orientation (Chambliss & Tackacs, 2014, p. 22). Another student notes quite the opposite, reporting, “the feeling you get on campus” is similar to the feeling of “being at home” (Chambliss & Tackacs, 2014, p. 89). Despite the mixed feelings from students, the authors inferred from the interviews that students are generally happy once he/she feels apart of a social group.
In addition to interviews, the text is written in a somewhat sequential format, providing the reader an opportunity to note how the writers conceptualize the “first steps” (p. 18) of entering college and the anxieties associated (Chambliss & Tackacs, 2014). As the authors conduct their research, they take note of how on-campus involvement outside the classroom builds the student’s sense of community among peers, which ultimately maintains the enthusiasm to succeed at the university level. Success is defined here as maintaining a high level of socialization, or the decision to take advantage of on-campus activities while simultaneously building relationships.
Chambliss and Tackacs evaluate many areas of both Student Life and the general college experience. Specifically, the authors question early on how educational institutions can utilize the resources that already exist on campus instead of searching for reasons to question the perceived value of on-campus student activities. For example, the authors think critically about Residence Life and how the student can use the dorm experience to his/her advantage. To this point, the book notes how the “physical proximity” (p. 24) of students in the dorm almost forces interaction to occur (Chambliss & Tackacs, 2014). The authors are fair-minded, delivering both sides of the argument. For example, the research describes how some students become “detached” and alienated from the college community, thus manifesting a more a-social experience. Similarly, some students feel that the sense of belonging to one group on campus, such as a fraternity or sorority, is almost too much exclusivity for the student. As a result, he/she feels no sense of belonging to other groups on campus, reporting that their “network is getting to be somewhat limited” (Chambliss & Tackacs, 2014, p. 97) due to the amount of time spent in the group.
The authors have written the literature and conducted the research from the perspective of a small liberal arts school in New York, which caters to an extremely small pool of reportedly financially capable students. Variables such as location, size of campus and population, student demographics, and campus activities, all play a role in this specific and specialized study of a liberal arts college. To draw a comparison, had the authors researched student engagement at a larger, public, higher educational institution, the results would appear seemingly different, noting obvious factors such as size of physical campus and volume of students on campus. The authors go as far as to admit that their campus is “well resourced” and “not a typical undergraduate institution” (Chambliss and Tackacs, 2014, p. 154). As far as diversity on campus, the authors lack an explanation of campus demographics, specifically the racial and ethnic makeup of the campus itself. With more information on campus demographics, the authors can bring attention to any possible race inequalities that exist on campus and how those inequalities manifest themselves in student engagement.
Specific to campus activities, the authors stay away from mentioning the risks that exist on campus as a result of belonging to a student group. For example, heavy drinking, sexual assault, vandalism, and hazing are unfortunately staple phenomena in higher education. Chambliss and Tackacs (2014) focus more on how students can develop their social self rather than the consequences of such socialization.
While student engagement in higher education has proven to produce mixed feelings among students, on-campus activities continue to thrive while simultaneously providing each student a unique sense of support during the time spent outside of the classroom.
Chambliss, D. F., & Takacs, C. G. (2014). How college works. Boston, MA: Harvard University
Pinar, W. F. (1995). Understanding curriculum: An introduction to the study of historical and
contemporary curriculum discourses. New York: P. Lang.
Thelin, J. (2004). A history of American higher education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins
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