Academic Drift 1

Academic Drift 1 February 21, 2011

In their new stunning book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a book that uses an ancient genre — the academic jeremiad — with exquisite accuracy, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa prove — not contend — that students are not learning what they should, professors are not doing all they could, administrators are not focused on education enough and, as if that weren’t a glassful, society is and will continue to suffer is something isn’t done about it.

This will have to be a series, and I am asking for your observations as we march through some of these themes, so today I want to sketch their four-fold areas of concern. Before I do that, though, I want to emphasize that we are talking degrees here and not either/or. It is easy to criticize educators and it is far easier to do so than to do something about it that improves the situation. I consider what I do to be a privilege and I love my students — well, most of them. This book focuses on problems in order to foster change and improvement.

Do you see these concerns? Any others?

So, now, on to the areas of concern:

First, students. Here is a set of facts: From the 1920s to the 1960s full-time college/university students spent approximately 40 hours in academic pursuits — classes and study. Today the students spend 27 hours. That means about 13 hours a week studying. Prior to the 60s it was about 25 hours.

This diminution of time has resulted in no appreciative change in grade point average or upon progress toward completion of the degree.

Second, professors.  The major shift has been toward “if you leave me alone I will leave you alone” posture. The big issues here are these: professors have increasingly been asked to spend more time on non-academic, non-teaching activities, have not been compensated sufficiently, and are increasingly more stimulated by and interested in research. Part of this is financial, but another part is the publication is seen as the #1 most important element of both recognition and promotion. Professors are therefore distracted from teaching — by their research, by committee work, by added responsibilities… Faculty spend about 11 hours on academic tasks like teaching and advising, and the rest of their time is spent on other things, often nonacademic institutional tasks. Many profs I know have to scramble to find time for research. The result is that less time is spent with students than one might think.

I add an observation: I find three kinds of professors. Some are research-oriented and scramble and work for time to do that research; some are much more focused on teaching and student interaction; and others seem more interested in the politics of the institution and work their way into administrative posts or into influence with the Senate or somehow shaping the institution itself.

Third, administrators. Their studies show that administrators too are distracted just as much, if not more, from the academic task of education to other things — like support staff, review, and raising funds. They call what has happened here over time ” nonacademic professionalization.” The Admin task is often concerned with the many facets of the school — like sports teams, community service projects, campus enhancement and alumni loyalty.

Fourth, education itself. This can be reduced to a simplicity that is accurate: the university/college has shifted in emphasis from preparing students for moral and civic lives of virtue to professional employability. Students increasingly see education as an instrument to get them to the next phase of life and less as a place of formation.

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  • Scot,

    As an almost post-grad, hopeful future professor and friend of professors, this is something I myself have begun to notice and to become worried about. I worry about the direction of my own university and what it is really preparing students to do. I anxiously await the rest of these posts and hope some kind of suggestion is made.

  • rjs

    Well, on #1 – this is a hard one to judge, and I wonder if it varies across disciplines. I tell my students at the outset of any class that education is a full time job and that for, say, a 3 credit class I expect that they will spend about 7 hours a week out of class on the material. As to whether they do or not … many come close I think.

    Although – I’ve found as well that the class has to be directed and programmed, especially in the lower level classes. Regular assignments without exception, required attendance, no ambiguity. Self-direction is hard to come by.

  • Jason Lee

    This looks interesting. I wonder if what is behind several of these shifts on the college side is that education is treated more and more like cut-throat business…a kind of winner take all endeavor. You do whatever you can get away with for the sake of institutional survival/success. This overarching institutional posture will shape how profs are forced to spend their time. Of course the the culture of departments play their role in shaping profs (by not just rewarding but also fetishizing high-status publications).

    On the student side: I’d assume that higher ed has expanded to more and more of the general population over the decades. When we dip deeper and deeper into the population and bring a greater proportion of the population to college, shouldn’t we expect to get less of a love of learning and subject matter and more of a utilitarian approach? Kids who aren’t interested in learning about Marx, Freud, or Romanticism are forced to spend years in college because of the society wide credentialing arms race. So should we be surprised that college students are less interested/committed to the content of higher ed than they used to be?

  • J.L. Schafer

    “…the university/college has shifted in emphasis from preparing students for moral and civic lives of virtue to professional employability.”

    This is a natural consequence of the push to send more and more American high school graduates to four-year colleges and universities rather than to professional and trade schools. If going to college is seen as a right or a rite of passage, and if more and more do it whether or not they are qualified and/or motivated, then this is bound to happen.

  • rjs

    The fourth point – on education itself, this is interesting and we can debate the merits. Is this really a problem – or is it simply a fact of life, the way it should be?

    Students spend a great deal of money on an education – and the product at the end is measured in large extent by an appropriate skill set for employability. The nebulous “better person” is a hard thing to defend.

  • Jason Lee

    J.L. Schafer(#4) more clearly expands the point I was making in my second paragraph on students.

  • Scot McKnight


    You said: “Although – I’ve found as well that the class has to be directed and programmed, especially in the lower level classes. Regular assignments without exception, required attendance, no ambiguity. Self-direction is hard to come by.”

    Those are the issues for me. I don’t like to monitor assignments but if they are not monitored many student won’t do them. So, if there’s a reading assignment, I find there has to be a quiz. Which too often can transform the assignment from “Read to learn” to “What will be asked on the quiz?”


  • rjs

    On the second point – professors – wow here is a can of worms.

    You can’t separate the financial from the publication and recognition. Raises (and promotions) come only through research, publication, self-salesmanship and self-promotion (or through entering administration). One might inch along with minimal raises on excellence in teaching, but often it flat-lines. There is no reward in the system for excellence in education.

    Although there are disincentives for “bad” performance, the general aim is to be “good enough”. It is foolish to waste more time than necessary to be good enough … or so many think. And then, of course, excellence is measured by some rather poor, or better, incomplete, indicators.

  • rjs

    I am teaching a sophomore level course this term and we have weekly problem sets, use clickers in class as incentive for attendance, and have reading quizzes for each lecture.

    When we started doing this the performance on the exams went up, measurably up. (No real surprise)

    For convenience we moved the reading quiz from in class to on-line (basically closed book, to open book) and performance declined somewhat. Students look at the quiz and search the book for the answer rather than read the book in preparation. I think next time I teach the class I will go back to closed book, in class quizzes at the start of class. Either that or put a 1 or 2 minute limit on the questions on the on-line quiz.

    I don’t particularly like doing most of these things – but see no real choice.

  • Jorge L

    In my view it’s the result of marketing college as a way of getting a better job, turning it into a moneymaking proposition rather than a path of learning truths about life and society. with student thus becoming customers of the university, buying a product at a very high price, has come the idea that they employ the teachers to deliver this expensive product. Teachers are no longer masters of material and wisdom that students are eager to acquire because the wisdom is a good in itself, but the information/skills are mere instruments to power, money, prestige.

    Colleges have abetted this by introducing the student (customer) evaluation of their employees (teachers). This came in about the time I was an undergrad, late 1960s, early 1970s.

    If you are employeed and reviewed by the students, then you need and want a good review. Students have no incentive any more to work long hours studying because the professor says that it’s the way to acquire wisdom and truth. Rather, they seek to acquire their Product at the minimal price in sweat and tears. Professors who violate this, who demand more than average, are bad (though the precise description on student evaluations of their failings may vary). The average amount of work expected, against which Professor X is deemed to be overly demanding, will steadily decline because there’s always going to be someone out there requiring a slight bit less, being more lenient and that helps slowly drag the median/average expectation down.

    Grade inflation has directed accompanied the inflation in use of student evaluations.

    Finally, the 1960s generation of now-tenured radicals has made the situation worse by politicizing “truth” and “wisdom.” If all truth is just politics, if Truth cannot be known, if truths are all socially constructed yada yada yada, why should students work hard to learn about Truth and Wisdom? Their interest is to get a saleable Product (a Degree) at minimal cost and have a good time doing it if they can.

    Universities have only themseles to blame, having aided and abetted the politicization and having blatantly marketed their product as merely instrumental. If it’s merely instrumental and merely a set of hoops to jump through, why should I engage my soul in its pursuit?

    If the universities had stuck with college as a search for Perennial Things, however,the great expansion of the 1960s and 1970s would never have taken place and many of us farm-boys-become-academics would never have had a chance to get PhDs and go into teaching.

    It’s true that in the 1930s and earlier, colleges were largely finishing schools for social elites. Very true. But, gasp, there still was some recognition among elites, for all their failings, cynicisms, instrumentality, that Perennial Truths still mattered in a Civil Society. Yes, they were on their way to today’s postmodern Pure Cynicism but had not yet arrived. And the handful of academics who taught them put up with the finishing school aspects in return for a life of scholarship–for the most part.

    I realized about the time I completed my degree 30 years ago that the pursuit of learning, the life of Wisdom I had set out to find had been booted out of the Academy. A farmboy like me would never have had a chance even to begin the pursuit under the older system. Which is better, never to have had the chance to pursue or to pursue the non-existent?

    In my case, I chose to pursue that which was dying and gained a pearl of great price. But no one in the academic world today is interested and I live on its margins, happy with my pearl but saddened by the instrumentality and politicized cynicism students today are buying at such great price.

    I am not exaggerating. The pursuit of Truth is dead among university elites. We cannot know Truth, they believe, only truths socially constructed. To insist on Knowable Truth is talibanish, they say. (Of course, they believe this maxim with fierce devotion. But you can’t get them to see the irony and they now control all the mechanisms, so Truth-Believers are routinely excluded. I have seen it happen again and again and again. Yes, I know there are pockets of exceptions. But they prove the rule.)

  • Scot McKnight

    rjs #8, dead accurate according to this book. Incentive is publication and activities that enhance academic reputation.

    Excellence in teaching is measured by the limpid student evaluation which measures nothing important when it comes to measurable growth in learning. Students evaluations have too high of a correlation with good grades given.

  • Scot McKnight

    Jorge … something I haven’t said in a long time here. Long comments stall the conversation.

  • rjs


    Limpid student evaluations in more ways than one. I think they correlate even better with instructor charisma, it isn’t just expected grades … An excellent rating comes when many students check “strongly agree” (5 on a 1-5 scale) for “This instructor is an excellent instructor” and “This class is an excellent class.”

  • Randy Gabrielse

    RJS is right on. However, I see another problem. A few years ago, when I was a campus minister, I was concerned about the increasing divide between the privileged who could afford a GOOD college education and those who could not. But increasingly I am concerned about the meaninglessness of the mantra “You need a college education to get a good job.” I see that increasingly even a diploma and a lot of volunteer/extracurricular/internship work is not a guarantee. When will students just give up on what we have called an investment?

    That said, and more to the authors’ point, I have great hopes for service learning, where students work in the community, learn something for class and give benefit to the communities where they serve. There lies my hope for closing the gap between the privleged and the marginalized.
    Randy Gabrielse

  • Phillip

    Scot and RJS,

    I have used quizzes for some time to make sure reading is done. If they will read before class, I can assume they know the broader background and move on to more specific discussions. Comments on my student evaluations are often positive about the quizzes. Students admit they would not have read without them. An added bonus is that I learn the names of my students more quickly when I hand back daily reading quizzes. I also use them to keep track of attendance without calling roll.

    In one class that I have taught for a couple of years, I had required reading but only held students responsible for it on exams. The first exams usually went badly for most. This semester, I am using daily reading quizzes, and the grades on the first exam were the best I’ve had in that class. Class discussion has also been better.

    I have been surprised by what students consider “a lot” of reading. One student complained that 27 pages in a textbook and 2 chapters from the Bible was a lot.

  • Sara Barton

    Some of my most motivated students these days are dual-enrollment urban 11th graders. It appears that they spend more hours in preparation than my traditional students, but then again, they are overseen by program coordinators and still live at home with their parents while traditional students are out of the home and working 20+ hours to pay for college. I wonder if the study looks at dual enrollment, a growing trend, as well as comparisons between work hours from the 1920s to 1990s.

  • pepy

    Interesting points from the article. And, RJS, I’m not disagreeing with you, but find your statement, “Self-direction is hard to come by” something to ponder. Why? Because more and more institutions are pushing, and more students are choosing, online educational options. If not for their core coursework, then for many electives and lower-level courses.

    The lure of the sure steady stream of financial income with online course registrations for the institution, despite failure and dropped course rates, trumps the institution’s need to give guidance to students that would be better suited to those courses (and there’s the need to give fewer funds to academic advising at those levels). THIS situation is of both administration and opportunistic financial making, and has to be causing a shift in the direction of academic purposes and outcomes.

  • jacob
  • Jason Lee

    When providing students with comments on their papers, I find that few seem to want them enough to come pick up their papers outside of class. So this seems a student-driven disincentive for a professor taking the time to help students more holistically. As a professor, the students are communicating to me that they are not interested in improving their knowledge of a subject or their writing/thinking. What students seem to take out of class time for is asking for a better grade…sometimes with elaborate reasons for why a better grade should be assigned to their (sometimes sloppy) work. It would have been better that the student had applied that much effort in their actual assignment.

  • Fred

    Scot (or rjs, anyone),

    This is a bit of an aside but I know a fellow who wants to pursue a PhD (in education). He’s 56 and hasn’t been in school for many years. He’s simply interested in learning for the sake of learning (as opposed to a career), and becoming a better teacher of the Bible.

    How would you advise him?

  • MatthewS

    A number of my profs in seminary use something that may not be available in many schools: self-reporting. When a class has a lot of reading, a prof may have a self-report due at the end of the semester where each week the student needed to mark some sort of scale, say “read carefully, taking notes”, “read”, “skimmed”, “didn’t read.”

    Some profs have required 1-page book reports of books, to help ensure the book was actually read.

    Both of these methods rely heavily on the honor system.

  • Thanx Scot. Down South (that’s REAL South for the Americans on this the faculty in Pretoria have been asking a lot of these questions. I wonder whether Third World countries at times might not be even worse of, since our academic positions are more thinly spread due to lack of funding, and to compete with European and North-American Universities and even stronger profit-driven motive is needed.

  • We have not talked much about college costs. If the student has to pay a significant portion, the prospect of productive employment to pay off loans drives the process more than we think. I hear parents (who are also taking on second jobs and borrowing) say the same thing. Unless you are going to med school or law school, for example, how do you pay for all this? My fiend’s son will have $100K in debt after university and grad school, but “hopes to pay it off” as a therapist. Maybe. But not likely with your average job and income.

  • pepy

    #18 Jacob: fabulous!

  • ab


    About #1 ( I have not read the book). Did the author’s say if/how the difference in hours pertained to advances in technology? As a Doctoral student now, my research and literature review processes have significantly sped up and saved time with the new availability of online journals, search engines and organizing tools. The same amount of time must go into reading those documents, but the raw effort to find them has easily been cut in half compared to when I was an undergrad more than 10 years ago. Same thing goes for simple tasks like formatting my bibliographies. What was once a 10 hour editing process, (if you are properly organized) takes 1 hour and a few clicks on refworks or endnote.

  • Rick

    When I was pondering teaching, I had a discouraged university professor describe the amount of time he had to spend just on administrative tasks due to budget cuts and, as a result, the lack of proper staffing.

  • Scot,

    I just read that Steven Pinker of Harvard continues to be directly involved in the grading of his students…even for classes of 250!


  • Richard

    @ 18

    I’ve seen Sir Ken Robinson’s presentation before regarding teaching paradigms and agree that it’s highly relevant to this discussion in academia and in church Christian Education programs.

  • Daniel

    Jacob @18, is there a part II? It seems like he does a great job describing the problem, now we need some real-world solutions.

  • Daniel

    It seems the categorization of professors is easier to quantify if those studied are full time profs. As one who has been working as an adjunct for over 10 years I wonder if this particular pool could be covered.

    Inside Higher Ed and sometimes the Chronicle of Higher Ed address adjunct concerns. Many schools have a large percentage of their teaching force staffed by adjuncts. As one who has taught folks in their early 20s and those in their 40s and 50s I see different skill sets coming to play. But then again, maybe this is a niche market phenomenon that will not be easily categorized for a study like this.

    Just a suggestion.

  • Ben Fischer

    Almost 15 years ago an English professor at Virginia, Mark Edmundson, wrote a controversial article on the emergence of this problem. His “On the Uses of a Liberal [Arts] Education” argues that our current academic situation–raised poignantly and forcefully in the book under discussion– has arisen due to “consumer culture” and a “culture of conspicuous consumption” seeping into institutions of higher learning. After ten years of teaching at both research universities and Christian colleges, I agree with Scott that it’s not seeping anymore, it’s driving academic culture. I had a bemused surprise a couple years ago when I heard secular sociologist Alan Wolfe argue that the last hope for American academia is Christian colleges because they have commitments outside and beyond the “consumer culture.” I was bemused because I haven’t seen us make much resistance.

  • Richard

    In my undergrad I used a simple test to determine if I would be doing the reading: if the professor lectured the exact same material we were to read, I didn’t read. If we had discussions around the material or the lectures were covering different material or building off of the reading assignment, I read so I could contribute.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Dr. McKnight,
    Did you read the article mentioned by Ben Fischer above (#31)? It was interesting. Here’s a link:

  • Joshua Wooden

    Dr. McKnight,
    Did you read the article mentioned by Ben Fischer above (#31)? It was interesting. Here’s a link: