Making the Unwritten Rules of College Legible

Photo courtesy of Tim Gouw via Unsplash.

Before departing on an extended trip to a foreign country, it’s best to learn about the local culture. Learning the unwritten rules of a culture can make a trip easier and more rewarding; one can minimize uncertainties and ambiguities that lead to miscommunications and mistakes. Not doing so can sour the whole experience.

Going from high school to college is just as radical a change as going from Kansas City to Kathmandu. The difference is that when we move between countries the contrasts are conspicuous. The divergences between high school to college are much harder to spot. This lies in the fact that while students have in fact entered a cultural context that is indeed foreign, many of the elements seem familiar: desks, teachers, classes, homework, etc. This superficial similarity masks deep differences and can be a real cause of misrecognized frustration for many students.

Despite good intentions, colleges and universities continue to routinely fail to serve the students they are tasked with educating. This is because they haven’t provided students with basic lessons about the nature of college culture or taught them how to play the academic “game.” Many schools have poor retention rates, provide poor job preparedness and placement, and worst of all, have a student body that is increasingly and justifiably stressed, anxious, confused, frustrated, and bored in the classroom. These problems are often coupled with terrible advising and extreme tuition costs. Sometimes this lack of social and cultural integration into the college or university community is literally a matter of life and death as campus suicides are on the rise. Moreover, 43% of students surveyed said they felt so depressed at some point in the academic year that it was difficult to function according to recent figures from The American College Health Association. Whatever colleges seem to be doing to prepare students for academic life, it isn’t working.

Colleges and universities invest time and energy training their faculty to teach well. As institutions of higher education opened their doors to larger segments of the population over the last 50 years, professors have had to adapt to new challenges and more inclusive ways of operating. Most schools have departments tasked with keeping faculty up to date on the latest trends and best practices in pedagogy. Virtually no professor is guilty of not reflecting on their teaching practices. Every professor wants their students to learn the lessons they have crafted and carefully delivered. There has been a good-faith effort by institutions of higher education to serve an ever-greater diversity and number of students, but these strategies ought to be expanded in scope.

I would argue that cultural misalignment and misunderstanding are major sources of student suffering and obstacles to learning in higher education. Training professors to improve their pedagogical techniques has long been a part of the way institutions of higher education have been run. It’s time we supplement these efforts by providing students with a crash course in higher ed to help them understand their professors, how to navigate their new institutions, and the best way to approach their classes.

Over a half-century of educational and sociological scholarship has routinely demonstrated that privileged students, on the whole, tend to fare much better than those from more modest socioeconomic backgrounds. Rich kids don’t just get into better schools, they do better in school, feel more at home, and are more likely to graduate (and do so on time).

The most likely explanation for this silver-spooned success is more than merely a matter of money, it’s also cultural. Yes, being able to pay for test-prep helps elites gain admission, but taking to college classes like a fish to water is more than simply economic. Privileged students are more likely to feel comfortable speaking in class, going to office hours, and advocating for themselves with administrators. These students have a better knack for navigating the culture of higher education. The question, then, is how do we help everyone else feel at home too?

There is an old and not particularly funny joke about the three kinds of students one will find in college. The first furiously takes notes during class trying to record everything the professor says. The second kind of student simply jots down the key concepts and ideas. The third type of student tries to talk like the professor. The punchline is that the student who parrots their professor gets an “A,” the key ideas student earns a “B,” and the note taker comes in last with a “C.” While not good for making anyone laugh, this joke certainly discloses a real truth: success in college is partly determined by cultural integration to the institution, by one’s ability to understand their gatekeepers, to combine substance with performance, and to “talk the talk.”

My use of the term “game” or the phrase “playing the academic game” is not meant to trivialize successful or unsuccessful university integration. Rather I’m drawing on the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. For Wittgenstein, the meaning of the words we use is not characterized by an adherence to abstract and self-contained rules. Rather, language use and meaning are bound up in the context of activity and engagement. Language use and meaning are bound up in the language games we play. Bourdieu applied this sense of game to the activities of members of certain social groups or classes who all (more or less) have a shared but largely tacit agreement about the “rules” of social conduct. In other words, the social “games” people are playing are taken very seriously and certainly aren’t recognized as games by the people playing them. This sense of social games involves seemingly insignificant things such as how to speak and what to say, how to hold one’s body, how to dress, what one ought and ought not do, and what matters and what doesn’t. Much as in sports, learning how to play these social games requires training and practice but comes to be a matter of second nature. Over time, one develops an intuitive “feel for the game.” This affinity and unspoken agreement among members of cultural groups, players of the same social games, explains their cohesion without appealing to any sort of conspiracy or conscious gatekeeping. In the joke about the three types of students above, it is the one who tries to speak like the professor who is learning to play the academic game and doing so successfully. This may seem to imply that being a good student is all performance and no substance, but the truth is that the two aspects are intertwined. Learning, under the best conditions, is an interactive and lively process.

We’ve spent so much time and energy training professors about students that we forgot that it can work the other way too, that we can teach students about their gatekeepers. The goal, then, ought to be to level the university playing field a bit by instilling cultural and navigational know-how more widely. Most schools do in fact have orientations. The problem is that they are largely ineffective. Many institutions think that they prepare students when in fact they do not. This institutional myopia hurts everyone, most of all the students themselves. By providing students with a truly transparent primer on academic culture and the organizational structure of their institution, we might empower more of them to thrive. Truly honest and transparent cultural lessons of this sort are sure to offend the sensibilities of some faculty who, in good faith, think they are already going out of their way to accommodate a diverse roster of students. But the numbers don't lie. Nor can we overlook the experiences of the majority of students, especially students of color, first-generation students, and students from less economically privileged backgrounds.

The lessons students need in this regard are largely invisible to faculty. According to Dr. Mary-Ann Winkelmes (2015), a renowned education expert, there are “secret, unwritten rules of how to succeed in college.” We must make those rules clear and legible to students. In the course of running teacher training workshops around the country, Winkelmes found that time and time again, professors take for granted just how much they know about their subjects, their expectations for students, and their knowledge of the workings of their institutions while at the same time wildly overestimating what students find to be intuitive or obvious. In short, not only do students misrecognize academic culture, but academics also misrecognize the cultural competencies of their students.

If colleges want to improve the learning, retention, time-to-completion, mental health, and overall experience of their students — and I believe that they all sincerely want those things — then they must supplement their teacher training, expanding mental health clinics, and even stress-relieving puppy rooms during finals week with a clear and straightforward guide to the culture of higher education and a map to the organization of their institution. The minds of college students have been neither closed nor coddled, they have simply been overlooked at the level of culture. We can do better in a way that benefits both students and institutions.

Enabling Students to Thrive in College. | HabitusEdu.com | contact@habitusedu.com