What is the core product of a liberal arts college? I would argue that it is the classroom experience. If so, then class attendance is one good measurement of how well a college is performing.
With this in mind, and with Dartmouth alumni in the midst of Trustee and Association of Alumni elections, I reprint an article written by my daughter, Emily Mirengoff a Dartmouth senior, when she interned for the Examiner newspaper a few summers ago:
I was characteristically nervous on the day of my English final, but in spite of my anxiety, I couldn’t help noticing something remarkable. My class had doubled in size. Even students who regularly skip class deign to show up for the final, but what’s noteworthy is that those students in absentia now comprise a good half of the class.
Not long ago, I was examining colleges for [a related] quality — class participation. I was one of those indecisive teenagers who took nearly an entire month off from high school to visit colleges. It was difficult to tell one campus from another, but one distinguishing factor was student involvement in the classroom. To me, the students’ passion for their classes was crucial. . . .
It was at Dartmouth College where I saw the most student interaction in class. So, in spite of other reservations about the college, I enrolled.
It’s ironic, then, that my other reservations (the cold, the Greek life, the rural setting) have completely dissipated and I am now disappointed with the academic passion of the students. I regularly observe students coming into class 20 minutes late; reading the newspaper; text-messaging on their cell phones in the back of the room; keeping their laptops open during class to “take notes” but really play solitaire; or simply dozing off during lecture.
And yet, these are the “good kids”–they’re the ones who bothered to show up.
To be fair to Dartmouth, I don’t think this is a school-specific phenomenon. For one thing, I’m told that this is a prevalent attitude at colleges across the country, and again, Dartmouth was the best school in this regard that I saw back in 2006.
For another, these habits are learned in high school, where students regularly get away with dozing off or text-messaging while teachers turn a blind eye. In fact, high schools have contributed to this trend by increasing the use of the computer in classrooms — several of my peers have mentioned that at their private high schools, laptops were required during class.
The omnipresence of the personal computer has allowed students to perfect their ability to simultaneously take notes and get high scores on Tetris. Students may be learning to multitask, but they’re not getting their money’s worth out of their education (which, at Dartmouth, costs about $125 per lesson).
But how can students today get away with such academic negligence when 40 years ago a student caught reading a newspaper in class was liable to be thrown out by the professor? Don’t overachieving young college students fear bad grades if they sleep through class?
No, because grade inflation makes it all too easy for students to sleep through class and still get As. Grade inflation certainly varies from school to school and subject to subject, but overall there is no doubt that the Gentleman’s C is slowly yielding to the Gentleman’s B-plus. I would be the first to admit that econ and math probably have much less grade inflation than, say, French and English, but as a humanities student, I am well-acquainted with the dizzying heights of modern grade inflation.
Of the nine classes I took last year, five had an average grade of A-minus, three had an average grade of B-plus, and only one had an average grade of B. It is possible that I took exceptionally easy classes (though I didn’t intend to do so). But in any case, the fact is that some students in these classes sloughed off and yet the class median clearly didn’t suffer — so these students’ grades probably didn’t either.
I once heard a professor tell a student, “I really enjoyed having you in class — I could always count on you to be there and be awake whenever I looked out at the students during lecture.” With that in mind, I have a kernel of advice for incoming college freshmen: Go to class. Stay conscious. It will be enough to distinguish you from most of your classmates, and who knows? It might even be enough to get you straight As.
Let me add a few footnotes. First, Emily is very happy overall at Dartmouth. Second, she is not involved in Dartmouth politics, nor is she strongly conservative when it comes to politics in general. Third, although this article was written several years ago, Emily tells me that the problem persists.
Fourth, the English class Emily refers to in the opening paragraph was taught by one of Dartmouth’s most popular professors. When I talked recently with a leading member of the Dartmouth alumni establishment about the English department, he told me (and not without good reason) that my daughter should take classes from this particular professor.
Finally, Emily makes it clear that the problem of poor attendance is not limited to Dartmouth. But, having surveyed her high school friends, she also tells me that the problem is hardly universal. That makes sense because the grade inflation she describes in the article is not universal, nor is class size as much of a problem at some top schools as it is at Dartmouth.
In any event, the phenomenon Emily describes should be of concern regardless of the extent to which it exists elsewhere. But from all I can tell, it is not even on the radar screen of Dartmouth’s administrators or its Trustees.