Dan Chambliss, a professor and author from Hamilton College, offered a variety of suggestions for turning a liberal arts education into a challenging and rewarding experience for students. His presentation at Thursday’s Common Hour was sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning.
The co-author of the soon-to-be-published How College Works: What Matters Most for Students in Liberal Arts Institutions, Chambliss emphasized the importance of interaction between students and faculty, and the need for students to forge close relationships with fellow classmates.
Indeed, Chambliss noted that those personal connections, often formed during the first year of a student’s college experience, can be more influential than curriculum, advising, classes or programs.
Chambliss told his audience, consisting of both faculty and students, that much of what transpires in the first year is unimportant in the scheme of things. “What’s relevant for students is an adult to talk to, someone who can be outside the official advising system,” he said. For example, he pointed out that one activity that can have an immeasurable effect on students is being invited to a faculty’s home for dinner.
When students at liberal arts colleges were asked whether they would have chosen their school again, 9 to 15 percent said they were more likely to attend that college simply because they had been invited to a professor’s home for a meal.
“It can have that kind of impact,” Chambliss said. “A minor investment of time can be a transformative experience and really can make a big difference.”
Chambliss spoke about other experiences that can make a liberal arts education memorable and beneficial. For example, he noted, a student having a one-on-one conversation with a professor can not only change the student’s thought processes but can change the way he or she thinks about writing in ways that having the student simply attend a writing center cannot.
Directing his remarks to the faculty, Chambliss said, “Personal contact has a vastly disproportionate impact on students,” adding that a student “basically needs two or three good friends and one or two great teachers to have a meaningful college experience.”
Chambliss said students also need to see the same people over and over again. Students tend not to make friends in classes but do form close bonds when participating in certain activities, such as the college choir or a sports team.
Regarding Greek life, Chambliss said Hamilton closed its frat houses in 1995 but didn’t eliminate fraternities. He said that has had a significant impact on the campus by increasing the number of students who are involved with Greek life. It’s allowed students to forge friendships and allegiances without the drinking and misbehavior that often go hand-in-hand with frat houses.
Chambliss also weighed in on the issue of class size, playing the role of the contrarian. Although most educators believe small classes benefit students, he said that at Hamilton it had the effect of closing students out of many of the classes they wanted and needed to graduate. Thus, the college’s push to keep all of its classes small, in effect, backfired. In the end, he concluded, “class size is irrelevant.” What is more important, he said, is that the classes “are great” and that the professors show interest in the students by doing such things as calling them by their first names.
He left his audience with three thoughts: First, students should pick teachers not topics. “Pick people who are going to motivate you and turn you on,” he told the students. Second, students should try to venture outside of their comfort zone. And lastly, if students are having a bad college experience, it could be that they’re hanging out with the wrong people.
Chambliss is the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College. His research is in the social psychology of organizations, most recently on the college experience. A former member of the Executive Committee of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Chambliss has recently focused his research on higher education, culminating in How College Works, which was co-authored by Christopher G. Takacs.
How College Works, scheduled to be released in January 2014, has been awarded the Virginia and Warren Stone Prize of Harvard University Press as its best book of the year on education and society.