Colleges nationwide turn to his book and his ideas
By ALEX P. KELLOGG
Richard J. Light, a professor of education, doesn't need anyone to teach him what many of his colleagues think of their responsibility to students. That was brought home some years ago, when Mr. Light, who holds a joint position at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and John F. Kennedy School of Government, attended a national conference on the role of faculty members and administrators in shaping students' college experience.
First to speak was a senior dean from a distinguished university. "He announced proudly that he and his colleagues admit good students and then make a special effort to 'get out of their way,'" Mr. Light recalls in Making The Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, published this spring by Harvard University Press.
Mr. Light was put off by such advice. He has dedicated much of the past 10 years to learning from students about how faculty members can take steps to improve the students' college experience.
His 242-page book, intended for just such an audience, is receiving excellent reviews both inside and outside academe. Already, at least seven colleges have ordered copies by the hundreds and, in one case, thousands. The title was recently No. 12 in Amazon.com's educational-books category.
The book's popularity has widened Mr. Light's reputation as an expert at advising colleges on the cheapest and easiest ways to improve their students' college experience. This year, during a sabbatical from Harvard, he is responding to invitations from two to three colleges a month, traveling to speak about his ideas and promote his book.
He acknowledges that his book's rapidly growing influence is ironic, given Harvard's less-than-stellar reputation for nurturing its own students. Even so, he says, the fact that a Harvard professor wrote the book "gives it a sort of extra legitimacy."
"A whole lot of other schools will say, 'Wow, if they care that much at Harvard about advising and how to make the most of students' college experiences, then maybe we should, too.'"
The book is based on 1,600 interviews with Harvard students conducted by Mr. Light -- a statistician by training -- and a team of researchers. Peppered throughout the text are excerpts from 100 of those interviews.
One instructive recollection comes from a student with two pleasures -- ballet and biochemistry -- and a suggestion that altered her college career.
In ballet, she soon developed stress fractures in her legs, which slowed her down. She noticed the condition in other female dancers as well. When she mentioned this to her faculty adviser, he urged her to explore it in her course work and find a research grant to work with a faculty member.
Together with a professor in the biology department, she began studying the effect of trauma on the leg bones of a pig. That, in turn, led her to switch her major to biology, apply to medical school, and become an orthopedic surgeon.
Of her adviser, she tells Mr. Light: "He made a suggestion that changed my life."
"A clear lesson" can be drawn from her account, writes Mr. Light: "Students have thought a lot about what works well for them," and good advising, which helps students link their outside interests to their academic pursuits, can enrich their learning experience.
Mr. Light's recommendations sound straightforward enough: Encourage collegial work. Urge students to get involved in extracurricular activities. Foster and promote diversity. Get students to form study groups. The list goes on.
Scholars and administrators who have read the book say it is the research behind such recommendations, not just the personal touch, that makes Mr. Light's work valuable.
"In terms of cost-effective ways of ... promoting interaction between students and between students and faculty, this book is loaded with practical advice," says Kent B. Linville, dean of academic affairs and a professor of philosophy at Emory University's Oxford College, where all 300 freshmen and their advisers will read the book and hear Mr. Light speak this fall.
Emory is one of a number of institutions seeking Mr. Light's advice this fall. On his campus tour, he will visit most of those where his book is being distributed to faculty members, administrators, and students.
The project that led to Making the Most of College originated in a request made in 1986 by Derek C. Bok, Harvard's president at the time. He asked Mr. Light, who had published extensively on educational assessment, to develop a comprehensive evaluation system with which the university could measure how well it was educating its students. If they said they had learned to write well, for example, could the university track when and how they had learned this? If they said they had not, how could the university improve?
On the basis of the subsequent research, Mr. Light has published many articles, including "The Report of the Harvard Assessment Seminars," released in 1990 and 1992, which he distributed to faculty members and administrators and still sends to anyone who requests a copy.
His new book was intended to be less analytical than his previous work. He has published what he calls a "compendium of anecdotes and examples" that "emphasizes the richness of personal" experience, rather than an academic work weighted with tables and pie charts.
From those anecdotes and examples, Mr. Light reports what students say they find most valuable, and suggests how professors and administrators can best meet those needs.
The College of Wooster and the University of Washington are among the institutions requiring some or all of their incoming freshmen to read the book.
At Wooster, freshmen will read it in their mandatory first-year seminars. At Washington, 3,000 of the 5,000 freshmen on the Seattle campus will read the book in a course designed to ease their transition to college.
That both Washington, a sizable urban university, and Wooster, a small, liberal-arts college in rural Ohio, are using the work speaks to its broad appeal.
"The book is not just sort of one more academic telling them what to do," says Thomas M. Falkner, dean of the faculty and a professor of classical studies at Wooster.
In writing about extracurricular activities, for example, Mr. Light notes that many students, after having been involved in plenty of activities in high school, see college as a time to buckle down academically, to the exclusion of their other interests. As a result, Mr. Falkner says, they may find themselves lonely and isolated.
The book quotes numerous students who say their personal and academic lives improved after they got involved in extracurricular activities.
For a young woman from the South Pacific, it was as simple as joining Harvard's marching band. Her job was simply to hold the drum so that the drummer could bang away at it, but the experience turned out to be "critical to keeping her" at Harvard, she told the interviewer. The suggestion to join the band had come from her freshman adviser, who realized that she felt disconnected from her classmates.
At Portland State University, in Oregon, officials say Mr. Light's work has helped them revamp the advising system. The book is "driving a lot of our changes," says Devorah A. Lieberman, vice provost and special assistant to the president.
Among other things, the university plans to increase the number of academic advisers available to undeclared majors. It will also require all students to meet with an academic adviser once they enroll in the fall and a departmental adviser once they declare a major.
In addition, the university will introduce an electronic system -- available to students and faculty members -- to assess students' progress toward their degrees.
Portland State has also asked Mr. Light to play host at a series of seminars for faculty members and students, including one designed for 30-some people at the university who advise students.
The kind of praise that means the most to Mr. Light comes from students.
Heather Pierce, a freshman who this fall will enter the State University of New York at Binghamton's honors program -- in which Making the Most of College is required reading for the 80 entering students -- says the book has proved more useful than the copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to College Survival that a friend gave her. "Definitely, I'm going to take the time to introduce myself to all my professors," she says, taking to heart the recommendation that students get to know at least one professor every term.
Martha D. Brophy, her soon-to-be classmate, hopes to make use of a related suggestion: Find a mentor with whom you can build a lasting academic relationship. Ms. Brophy, who expects to major in anthropology, has already met one professor in the department, whom she plans to approach in the fall. "I don't generally go right up to a teacher and say, 'Hi, I need help.' But it's actually a really good idea."
Not everyone who has read Mr. Light's book effuses praise. "It's hard to know how seriously to take these voices," says John B. Bader, assistant dean of academic advising at the Johns Hopkins University.
He has reservations about the book's methodology. "I don't know how ... these students were chosen. I also don't know if some of the voices that come out more strongly come out because they were more articulate or more passionate about what they had to say, [or because] they were typical."
Mr. Bader finds the buzz over the book unwarranted, given what he describes as its lack of analysis of the quoted material. He argues that the author too often takes at face value what the students have expressed. Indeed, more than once, Mr. Light quotes an interviewee without saying how representative that student's experience is -- an approach that the dean calls "odd" for a statistician.
"I like that he's doing this," Mr. Bader says. "I just wish that he'd done it a little bit better."
Harvard's own academic credentials no doubt have played a part in generating widespread enthusiasm for the book. "Just hearing it from the heart from a school that has obviously been very successful" is great, says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology and coordinator of the Office of Scholarship Advisement at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
"We encourage our students to feel ready for the kind of success that these Harvard students have," so it's good for them to see that Harvard students, too, can have clay feet, she says.
Mr. Light, for his part, defends his de-emphasis of methodology and says his work is, in fact, academically rigorous. "The power of the book, in large measure, is that it is not Richard Light's opinion, it's what the students said -- and having those anecdotes in there, that packs a lot of the punch," he says.
But those with misgivings about the book seem to be in the minority.
"Part of what comes through ... is the importance of human contact and caring," says Emory's Mr. Linville. "Somehow that's a platitude, but sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious."