Thursday, September 20, 2007

How Do You Change a Culture?

A wonderful piece over at Mad Melancholic Feminista the other day wherein Aspazia argues for the value of female only colleges. Her significant other is a biology prof at an all-female institution and Spaz was marvelling at an assignment his students had turned in,

His students are engaged, work very hard, and excel. Yesterday I decided to read the blog entries, that he is having his Neurobiology students write in response to a Carl Zimmer's The Soul Made Flesh (which is, by the way, a fantastic book). I was absolutely stunned by the work ethic, the seriousness with which his students took the assignment, the willingness to make connections between courses, and the intensity with which the students engage each other. I hate to say this, because I know my students read this blog, but I have never experience this kind of quality of work--across the board--from my students at a college with a reputation for being much "better" than Za's college. I am not trying to start fights or nothing, but it is a fact.
Yes, by reputation, US News and World Reports standings, and all the other so-called objective metrics our institution is "better" than his, yet the work produced is different because the student engagement is different. The student engagement is different because the campus culture is different. And therein lies my interest.

This post struck me hard because I had yet another student in my office a few days ago, a very bright, incredibly interesting, funky student, who uttered those horrible words, "I'm thinking of transferring." Every year, it seems, I have this conversation. The student feels to go through the whole "It's not you, it's me; can we still be friends" routine as if we were breaking up and the words they use are eerily similar, "I love your classes and those of professors x, y, and z...but it's the time outside of class, it's not..." and their voice trails off. I usually finish the sentence for them, "It's not what you pictured college being like with engaging discussions about deep topics in philosophy, science, and politics in the wee hours of the morning with a group of friends sitting around on the floor and music playing." They inevitably drop their eyes and shake their heads yes. They don't want to say they are geeks who want a more serious set of study partners so they can spend more time on homework, rather they want intellectually lively peers to jam with, to bounce ideas off of, to argue with, to create with. They have had this idealized picture of college in their heads of a time when they would leave the cliques and fashion-bullshit of high school behind and get their chance to play the young intellectual so hip that they use the new word for hip that old guys who write blogs don't yet know and sound stupid using anyway. Then, sadly, they are confronted with a culture run by the same people who were the Heathers in high school. We lose some of our best, funkiest, most interesting students because we don't have a critical mass of good, funky, interesting students. And that's the challenge. How does one change the culture so that these kids claim ownership of the institution?

It's not that our students aren't bright, they are. I get good kids who write well, think in interesting insightful ways, and can do amazing work. Indeed, the last couple of years, I've been getting the best students I've seen here who are excited, curious, and playful. Exactly the sort we want. But people are shaped by their cultures and my worry is, as I've seen with some of my more promising students in years past, that they will get co-opted, corrupted, ruined by certain elements who control campus culture.

Gettysburg is like so many other schools that create gender parity by having higher standards for the admission of women. If we went to gender blind admissions, a stunning percentage of the male students here would never have been admitted. From the "irony can be so ironic" file, whenever I teach Contemporary Moral Issues, those student who most stridently display a sense of offense at the notion of affirmative action are always the rich, white, males who are only at this school to make sure that the women who are actually prepared to do the work here don't transfer because there's no one here to date.

As Aspazia points out, these male students who are the academically least talented and who not only contribute the least to the intellectual culture of the institution (indeed, who seek actively to undermine it in ways) are also the ones on campus with the most social capital. This problem is ossified by the fact that institutions of our student life, especially the Greek system, entrench that power in ways that the incoming class has no need to reconstruct it, they just fall right into the mold. They learn who has the power, they select the next set of guardians to protect that standing and it becomes more and more reinforced.

So, the question is, given that these institutions aren't going away any time soon, given that the admission profile of the incoming female and male students are not going to change significantly, what can be done to change the culture to make it more hospitable to those students who would most enrich it? How do you change a culture so it better resembles that at Aspazia's partner's institution?