so whatever happened with that fear factor book?

Or, sort of peer-reviewed Monday!  Not quite, but a book review.

I didn’t want to list the name of the book in question before because I hadn’t read it yet, and didn’t want to answer questions from people who might have found the post by googling the book title.  Especially if they were people who really liked the book, because I didn’t know yet if I liked it.   And there are people who really, really, really like it –

Best book ever on how to prepare students for college (Jay Mathews, Washington Post blogs)

I don’t really agree with the title there – the point of this book didn’t seem to me to be about preparing students for college so much as it is about preparing college for students.

Citation:  Cox, Rebecca D. (2009).  The College Fear Factor. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

The book is based on 5 years of data gathered from community college students.  The author herself did two studies examining community college classrooms.  One was a basic writing class and the other looked at 6 sections of an english composition class.  Each lasted a semester, and gathered qualitative data about the classroom conditions that had an impact on a student’s successful completion of the course.  She also participated in a large scale field study of 15 community colleges in 6 states, and another national study of technological education.

The argument in the book comes from research on community college students, but it is still of interest to those of us who work with students managing the transition to college at any institution.  It is perhaps more relevant to those of us at institutions that attract a significant number of first-generation college students.

I am not sure entirely what I think of the book – on the one hand, it was a quick easy read and I enjoyed it as I usually enjoy well-reported stories drawn from qualitative investigation.  On the other hand, it struck me as one of those books that reports on an important conclusion, but one that could have been well-covered in an article-length treatment.  The conclusion is drawn over and over again in this longer work, so sometimes chapters go by without me feeling like I had really encountered anything new.

What is that conclusion?  I said to Caleb earlier that I wasn’t sure where the fear factor part of the title came into the book (becuase at that point I was on about page 17) and I have to say now that the title is good insofar as the real point of this book is on fear, and how that emotional state affects student success.  (Insofar as it evokes a really awful reality show, on the other hand, not so good).

And in this, I think the book is valuable.  We don’t think and talk about the role of affect enough in higher ed – at least not on the academic side – nor about the intersections between affect and cognition and affect and everything else we do, and this book is an important corrective to that.  Basically, Cox argues that students can be scared away from completing college – not because they are not capable of doing college-level work, but because they have not been prepared to do it before they get to college, and they are not helped to do it once they arrive.

The many students who seriously doubted their ability to succeed, however, were anxiously waiting for their shortcomings to be exposed, at which point they would be stopped from pursuing their goals.  Fragile and fearful, these students expressed their concern in several ways: in reference to college professors, particular courses or subject matter, and the entire notion of college itself — whether at the two- or the four-year level.  At the core of different expressions of fear, however, were the same feelings of dread and the apprehension that success in college would prove to be an unrealizable dream.

Cox argues that these fears are exacerbated when one doesn’t come in to college knowing how to DO college.  And that most first-generation, non-traditional and other groups of our students don’t come to college knowing what the culture and mores of academia are.  They have expectations, but those aren’t based on experience (theirs or others’) and when those expectations are challenged, their reaction is to think they can’t do it at all or to convince themselves that it is not worth doing .

Professors too have their own set of expectations about how good students approach their education, and when faced with student behaviors that are different than those expectations would suggest, they make some faulty assumptions about why students are behaving the way they are. A student who attends class every day but never turns anything in  — that’s incomprehensible behavior to the professor who doesn’t understand how that student possibly thinks they are going to pass.  After reading Cox’s book, you consider the possibility that that student doesn’t think they are going to pass, but are just playing out the semester in a depressed

I still feel like I am missing from this book much of a sense of why professors have these expectations  –  besides “that’s the way we’ve always done things.”  In other words, it doesn’t really work for me (nor do I think Cox is really claiming) that there is no value at all to the way that professors were trained, and that that they are hanging on to methods that don’t work simply because they went through it so others should have to.  Yeah, yeah, there are professors like that.  But my sense as a person engaged in higher ed is that a lot of professors think that there is value in the way they look at learning, meaning-making and knowledge creation and the joy they get from teaching comes from working with students who can share that joy.

Cox does a good job arguing that many of the students they have are not ready to do that, but I don’t get the sense from her book that she doesn’t see the value in that view of education.  I have a much clearer vision from this book what the students Cox interviewed value –  mostly the economic benefit they connect to the credential — but because her research didn’t extend to the teachers, I don’t have that same sense from them.

Here’s the thing – universities aren’t just about the teaching. They’re not going to be just about teaching and it’s not a really hard argument to make that they shouldn’t be just about the teaching.  A lot of professors were hired for their research, and the research they do makes the world better, and connecting students to that kind of knowledge creation is cool.  And even when they are about teaching they’re not just about the teaching of first-year undergraduates making the transition into college.  Even those students in a few years, immersed in a major, are going to need something different than they need when they first hit campus.

Just as it is not useful to sit in meetings about teaching and spend all your time discussing the students you should have (and yeah, we’ve all heard those discussions).  I’m sure I’m not the only one to say that at some point you have to put your energy into the students you have.  But when I say that, and when a lot of people say that, they don’t mean – the students we have can’t learn how to participate in academic culture.  We don’t mean that – academic culture has no value to these students.  Which is the really valuable point in this book – unprepared does not equal incapable.   I don’t want to say the book offers no solutions, because it does.  I guess what I do have to say is that I don’t find those solutions convincing in a research university environment.

All of this, of course, goes well beyond the scope of Cox’s book and Cox’s research, which is about particular students in a particular setting where teaching, and the transition to college, is paramount.

It’s a long way of saying that while the book has value to those outside the community college setting, that value only  goes so far.  There is more work to be done figuring answers to the questions she raises in other environments.

Which is why the chapter that was probably the most interesting to me is chapter 5 – which examines the work being done by two composition instructors – instructors who by most accounts are doing everything “right” in their classrooms  — right by the Chickering-type standards of active learning and engagement and right by what we are constantly told these hands-on, tech-savvy experiential-learning-wanting students today need.  In other words, they’re doing the things we think we should be doing in the research university to connect the students to what it is that scholars do – and they’re failing.

The idea that students have to be forced to be free is not a new one, but it is a point that gets lost sometimes in discussions about what is wrong with higher ed.  We hear that lectures are dead, that students can’t learn that way, that they hate lecturing, they tune out, they want to learn for themselves, and … it just doesn’t always reflect my experience. They may hate lectures, but that doesn’t mean that’s not what they think higher education should be.  They have their expectations that they bring with them, and professors that try to turn some control over the classroom and over learning to their students can be shot down for “not doing their job.”  That’s what Cox found, and I’ve certainly seen it happen.  The assumptions that these professors are falling victim to aren’t assumptions that students are going to be unprepared, or ignorant, or unwilling to learn – they’re more the opposite.  They assume that students will be curious, will have a voice they want to get out there, will have learning they want to take responsibility for.

So, I’m glad I didn’t bail – but I’m also glad the book didn’t take more than a couple nights to read.

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