14 April 2014

Who Are the Warm Blankets?

The New York Times recently (4/11/14) published an interview with Daniel Chambliss, author (with Christopher Takacs) of How Colleges Work. That book title seems a little less imposing when you learn that the college in question is specifically, an elite SLAC.
Although Hamilton, a small, selective, expensive liberal arts college in upstate New York, has little in common with the large state universities and community colleges that most students attend, Dr. Chambliss said the lessons learned could apply everywhere.
Depends on the lessons, doesn't it? "It comes down to factors like dorm design, friends and extracurricular involvement more than what happens in the classroom," explains the New York Times interviewer, Tamar Lewin. This summary already points to some limitations of the project. For commuters, nontraditional students living outside the dorms, students combining their studies with full-time employment, there isn't a whole lot of college outside the classroom. 
Still, granted that "college" means "traditional students on a four-year plan," I'm willing to reserve judgment and read on, particularly as I spend a lot of time on this blog arguing for the importance of "what happens in the classroom." Turns out that it's more important than the interviewer first let on:
What should colleges do to make students’ experiences better? 
They should be looking for things that give the biggest payoff for the least effort. One hospital study found that patients reported a better experience if a nurse had offered them a warm blanket while they were on the gurney waiting for surgery. There are all kinds of “warm blankets” colleges can offer. Students who had a single dinner at a professor’s house were significantly more likely to say they would choose the college again. In learning to write, it made a lasting difference if students had at least one experience of sitting down with a professor to go over their work, paragraph by paragraph; for the students it was someone serious saying their writing was important.
This prescription doesn't surprise me. Students benefit from the close attention and care of the people who teach them. What seems puzzling is the equation of that care with "warm blankets." It's not that hard to get blankets warm and keep them handy. Creating an institutional culture where students can expect at some point to dine in a professor's home (when such practices haven't been the norm) is monumental. So is creating a teaching environment where students have the expectation that "someone serious" (not, presumably, a part-time composition instructor) will have the time to give them one-on-one attention to their writing. 

The institutions where these kinds of things routinely happen are not the kinds of institutions that supply most undergraduate students with a college education. And it's been a long time since the student-centered, labor-intensive dimensions of teaching have been at the center of the public delivery of higher education.

At many institutions, these kinds of outcomes can only be achieved if the "warm blankets" are contingent and underpaid faculty tasked with delivering one-on-one student attention. But I'm pretty sure that's not how they do it at Hamilton College.

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