Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, "How College Works" (2014)

Chambliss and Takacs' How College Works, published in 2014, initially seems an unlikely candidate for the term "quietly radical."

Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, "How College Works" (2014)

We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge—and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves—how could it happen that we should find ourselves?

—Nietzsche, opening of On the Genealogy of Morals, tr. Walter Kaufmann

Chambliss and Takacs' How College Works, published in 2014, initially seems an unlikely candidate for the term "quietly radical." It is eight years old now; its recommendations are drawn from surveys taken at a small, wealthy, private school (Hamilton College in New York State); the authors freely admit they are not trying to tackle problems of race, sex, or class. Yet page after page of this study pushes against trends which have taken over university administration. The authors openly say strategic plans rarely work, as they fail to properly account for people as a factor. (166) They throw cold water on assessment by showing how a university's resources could be put to better use. (169) They are relentless in asserting that people matter more than programs and that accepting a wide range of good outcomes is essential to seeing how college works. In short, they're not saying "workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains," or "what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal." But if you take their statement "what really matters in college is who meets whom, and when" seriously, higher education in general becomes something entirely different than what it is currently. (16)

I want to talk about How College Works has changed my perspective on the necessity of small classes, as well as reinforced my thinking about how people make the college, as opposed to buildings or programs. However, I also want to address the most powerful aspect of the book, which is when the students surveyed speak in their own words about their growth. It is abundantly clear at those moments that screaming against potential debt relief for student borrowers is a fundamental devaluing of education. Higher education done well is a great good with individual, civic, and community benefits, not to mention its dedication to scientific progress and active preservation of knowledge. The only questions we should be asking are how to increase the quality of it and access to it.


I confess I'm probably too partial to small classes. This may have started in high school, when there were days I'd go barely talking to anyone. I didn't lack friends, but the social interaction of small classes was still invaluable. I didn't know then how moody and antisocial I could be, even when others reached out. That I could say something in class and be valued for it kept me afloat when some part of me felt I wasn't worth listening to.

I do not think this is an experience peculiar to myself. Young people face crushing pressures from all directions. They don't just need to fit in. A lot of times, they're dealing with toxic friends and family. It took me a long time to realize I had people in my life incapable of saying "thank you" or "good work." Or they must grapple with those who refuse to take them seriously or acknowledge their capabilities. Small classes cannot remedy these pressures, and should not be tailored to do so. But in a college or university setting, they can offer invaluable opportunities for attention, mentorship, gathering oneself, and reflection. Small classes in college helped me survive, to be honest. I had no idea what I was doing in my undergraduate years.

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Still, Chambliss and Takacs make an excellent case for large lecture classes, a case so solid that I want to try teaching a few myself. Their argument is centered around "the arithmetic of engagement." (67) Simply put, good opportunities are limited, especially for students just beginning their college career. There are only so many good teachers and classes for a given student. However, a lot of crucial things happen early in one's career which determine whether one feels like they belong, or finds a mentor or subject they're excited about. Large lecture classes with great teachers, scheduled at the right time, can bring lots of students to an incredible opportunity. If one is thinking "who cares about scheduling, no one learns anything in college," consider the case of Mireya Mayor. She took an anthropology course because it fit her schedule, found she loved the subject, and then found herself doing fieldwork, on television, and discovering a new species of lemur. Chambliss and Takacs make the case that motivation is what you really learn, and motivated people, for some strange reason, want to go to college.

When colleges create lots of smaller classes, by definition they are denying their best lecturers the chance to impact hundreds of students. Those students lose the excitement and energy large lecture classes can have. At Rutgers, I distinctly remember Ross Baker's American Government class, Ed Rhodes' Introduction to International Relations, and Ernie Lepore's Introduction to Logic. They'd always start with what you knew and build on it. Of course you knew the House was different than the Senate. But Professor Baker would relish every detail while talking about the legendary USS Sequoia, the yacht on which POTUS would take freshman House members for a ride in order to secure votes for a bill. You understood right then and there that the House and Senate were very different. Rhodes discussing the reasoning behind Mutually Assured Destruction and Lepore on the Existential Quantifier have also stayed with me. In both cases, they showed how looking at a problem differently revealed a new set of considerations and ends.

Right now, I've got a few ideas for a course modeled on Gordon Schochet's introductory course in Political Science. It was held in an auditorium, and there must have been over a hundred students. I took it 20 years ago; I forget the exact title. It was a wild class: texts included Antigone, The Federalist Papers, Letter from Birmingham Jail, Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality, and The Communist Manifesto. That selection is fairly traditional, but Schochet added Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (this turned out to be prophetic), Disney's Pinocchio (this was crazy. We were supposed to see, as students new to the field, how capitalism could co-opt traditional and religious mores), and Art Spiegelman's Maus (again, prophetic). I'm thinking, along these lines, about a last unit for an Introduction to Philosophy class which would put Descartes' Meditations and Dan Clowes' Ghost World together. Descartes is not shy about what the cost of truly learning is. He's angry at the "schoolmen" for years of miseducation; the cogito places a tremendous burden on "I think." In a related vein, I can't shake the last pages of Ghost World, where wanting to know more means leaving behind a world you've learned to love that much more.

listen up yall
Photo by Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

Chambliss and Takacs state the obvious well, making me wonder how exactly higher ed is run nowadays: "[A] single poor professor, teaching a large introductory course, can easily destroy scores of students' interest in a discipline." (68) I don't want to say it is easy to be a good teacher, but I can say there are three essentials: 1) excitement about the material 2) an interest in your students' well-being 3) acting decently. That's it. Students will forgive nearly everything else. If they're complaining about disorganization, boring or rambling lectures, or items that made no sense, that might be because those things bordered on indecent. You've got to be respectful of your students' time, effort, and willingness to do the work. (Obviously, adjust what I'm saying depending on where you teach. Some environments are particularly difficult.)

In spite of this, we all know really bad teachers who are entrenched at universities. Not ones that made a mistake, not ones that don't fit a school well, not ones that have some weaknesses. No, I mean teachers who can be described and need to be dealt with in the following manner:

...our method—moving people around a little—by comparison is much easier. So if you have some grouchy old misogynist who isn't up to date in his discipline and doesn't like young people, yes, you could send him off to some workshops, propose he introduce more collaborative learning, and see what happens. Or—our suggestion—you could just minimize the damage: schedule his class at 8:00 A.M. and hope that no one shows up. (169)

Once, I would have sworn that programs make some difference in teaching quality. That, for example, if you have a core curriculum, teachers at the very least can't do too much damage. After all, you're still reading Dante or Milton. The books alone should make you smarter. Unfortunately, some of the worst teachers I know are closely tied to elaborate academic programming. They don't feel any pressure whatsoever to explain the relevance of what they teach or do. They believe the majesty of the material benefits all, even if their class is clearly trying and suffering. Maybe the worst thing I've seen is bad teachers who have fans. For example, a professor who rants about random Supreme Court cases for over an hour while some students make detailed notes. The students confuse the anger for excitement, the randomness for technical expertise, the failure to properly teach for academic rigor. The interest these misled students have in the discipline is shallow, and it isn't their fault.

Again, How College Works is profoundly countercultural on this topic. Even the institutions who say they're hiring for teaching quality still weigh research heavily, not thinking much about the basics of the classroom. When they do think about the classroom, they think in terms of course sequence and what higher level topics can be offered. This is all well and good, except for the fact that most students—including the best students!—will never bother with the major at all if their first impression of the field is bad. That impression depends on the faculty they actually do encounter. Chambliss and Takacs make note of a dean who complained about a legendary teacher not up-to-date in his field. The dean cited stories from his former students who were now in graduate school. Their response to his stories: "The students who didn't like their first teachers—however up-to-date those professors were as researchers—probably never even took a second course. So the dean never heard their stories." (66)

international students who have received a diploma of higher education
Photo by RUT MIIT / Unsplash

Though I write daily, though I try to speak in public, even I tend to forget how powerful those opportunities are. Chambliss and Takacs, however, don't lose sight of this. They can't, because the students they survey are consistently talking about how the desire to better communicate transformed their lives. Here's a story about one student, Russell, and what an environment rich with good teachers and mentors specifically did for him:

Because he cared what those teachers thought of him, Russell worked hard to think, write, and speak better. In an interview one Tuesday, he told our researcher that the previous Friday he had prepared thoroughly before going to ask a professor a question about an upcoming paper. "I don't want to seem like an idiot in front of a professor... You know, they are really smart people, and I don't want to seem like some jerk that just came into their office with nothing to say..." (150)

Russell probably went a bit overboard, as good teachers are always happy to sit down, talk, and figure out the question. Still. His willingness to prepare before speaking and his respect for someone else's knowledge are no less than intellectual virtues. We've got elected officials who lie to our face about the condition of the power grid or what exactly happened regarding murdered children. Russell's being a good student is in explicit contrast to being "some jerk that... came into their office with nothing to say." As I'm writing this, people are literally piling on the President for even thinking of forgiving 10k in student loans per borrower, because they say back in 1983 they paid all their loans. The difference between Russell's attitude—I want to be knowledgeable when I communicate—and what characterizes reactionary extremism couldn't be more stark. Communication entails virtues essential to leadership.

How College Works presents Russell as someone for whom "everything worked." "[A]ll of the challenges were met, the breaks all fell his way." (149) "Within four years of graduating from the college, Russell was vice president of a small advertising agency in Manhattan. By 2012—seven years after college—he was in a senior executive position with an international marketing and advertising firm." (151)

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But some of us don't want to leave college, because we know how rare respectful, thoughtful environments are. We know what good they can do. For some from difficult backgrounds, school is the only place you can hear yourself think. Where people talk to you with respect and appreciate your questions and answers. Here's Amy, talking about how she developed "intellectual confidence" in college:

[I was] treated like—sort of like an equal in a way, more like a colleague than being condescended to by professors. I think that's really important, being viewed as a fellow intellectual, if you will. And carrying that into the real world, I think that you can continue to believe that everyone will perceive you that way. And when you believe that people will perceive you that way, they do. (142)

Amy's correct in saying that if you believe people will treat you as a fellow intellectual, they will. It's something I've had to relearn because at times I've bounced from one vicious, thoughtless environment to another. There are a lot of people and places addicted to the thrill of bullying as opposed to strengthening another's confidence. Perhaps the ultimate defense of higher education is the potential it has for building its students no matter what. Businesses and even families can't quite claim this, because the pursuit of knowledge is so deeply personal. You're literally building your mind, and what a joy it is to have people treasure that.


I would be remiss if I didn't briefly state the conclusions of How College Works. "Deploy the best teachers for maximum impact;" "Use space to help people meet;" "Use strategic scheduling to improve the odds for learning;" "Help motivated students find each other;" "Focus especially on students' early careers;" "Use the arithmetic of engagement." (159-161) You can see a theme stand out: people matter. Get the best teachers teaching more, help students meet, help motivated students meet.

I feel lucky that a lot of their conclusions make sense to me. There's no reason this should be the case. I made a mess of my undergraduate studies, prioritizing books over people. I was angry and selfish and a terrible communicator—an absolute mess. A few small classes, some great mentors, and a lot of generous people reaching out helped me survive. In retrospect, I don't know much more could have been done. I didn't know what skills I lacked or how to fix what was wrong. All I did was go to the library and read because I felt dumb.

This continued in graduate school, where I read whatever I wanted however I liked. There were times I declined markedly as a writer despite having read that much more. Some great people and timely opportunities helped me get through it. I guess, in the end, I'm partial to Chambliss and Takacs' conclusions because I know what doesn't work.


Chambliss, D. F., & Takacs, C. G. How College Works. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.