On Chambliss and Takacs, How College Works

How College Works, by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, is a book about the ingredients of a successful education at a small liberal arts college. The library is, to appearances, largely irrelevant to this education; the authors only mention the library a single time. Moreover, that is a remark in passing: time and space can be flexible at college, as for example how “…the library morphs into a social center” (86). The library is otherwise absent, buildings, collections, and librarians alike. Yet How College Works is worth librarians’ time, and I think a place exists for the library within the authors’ vision of higher education.

The subject of How College Works is upstate New York’s Hamilton College. The authors are, respectively, a sociology professor at Hamilton and an alumnus finishing a doctorate in sociology at the University of Chicago. The main source for the research is a series of interviews with former students at Hamilton, conducted five to ten years after the student’s arrival. The goal was to allow the students time and space to reflect on their college experiences so that they could identify the elements that significantly affected their lives, whether positive or negative. A second important source for the book is a qualitative, longitudinal study of student writing.

In short, Chambliss and Takacs (C&T) argue that person-to-person relationships are central to the college experience. Healthy relationships, among students and between students and faculty, are a prerequisite to learning. Ten years after students enter, these relationships with peers and with faculty — the long-lasting friendships students made — are what they remembered about their time at Hamilton. These friendships were far more significant than the particulars of any program of study (4-5).

A student does not have to have a large number of friends for their college experience to be a success. Rather, having a few close friends — two or three good friends and one or two faculty mentors — are sufficient but essential (17).

This process of building relationships begins even before classes start. If students miss out early on they’re likely to be at a permanent disadvantage. Where one lives makes a difference, and the “lifestyle integration” that C&T find essential to a successful college experience begin here, with “a selected group of residents, close living around the clock, meeting and interacting with others in a variety of roles, multiple uses of time and space, [and] separation from the rest of the world” (89).1

If a community of peers is essential to the college experience, so too are relationships with faculty. C&T identify four characteristics of good teachers: they excite the student about the course material, they are skilled and knowledgeable in their discipline, they are accessible, and they are engaging. One of the four can’t be used to differentiate between faculty: at an elite liberal arts college like Hamilton, all the faculty are skilled and knowledgeable. Thus, it’s the other three characteristics that make the difference. Taken together, they represent students’ reaction to teachers. And first impressions are important, for a discipline as much as for a person. An introductory teacher represents a whole field of study to a new student. A good teacher can remake a student’s entire career by drawing them into their field, while a single bad professor can keep a student from ever returning (47, 50-51).2

Close contact with faculty is essential to students’ well-being. Mentoring over the long term, whether from professors or from other figures like athletic coaches, is far more important than formal relationships with an assigned advisor. Good mentoring results in a virtuous cycle of success and attention. But even smaller gestures make significant differences. C&T found that, ten years later, students remembered and valued invitations to professors’ houses. This practice, though, may only be possible at smaller colleges within a particular geography and culture — urban universities, or large land-grant institutions, don’t offer this possibility (55-59).

It turns out that these relationships with peers, with faculty, and with a larger campus community are not merely pleasant, but are essential motivators in the learning process. By their junior years students are focusing on the specifics of their chosen discipline. They need to acquire skills, knowledge, and methods particular to those fields. This requires hard, concentrated work: “tasks [that] must be faced by each individual, and students studying alone seem to perform better than those working in groups.” The student might need to study alone for the deepest learning, but even then the community of peers and mentors provides important support (105-106).

To sum up, Chambliss and Takacs believe that “college works when it provides a thick environment of constant feedback, driven by the establishment and maintenance of social relations” (132). Later I’ll look at how those factors influence several topics covered in How College Works that are of particular interest to librarians: the teaching of skills, the importance of place, and assessment.


  1. C&T find that dorms with long hallways and shared facilities, on which students will be able to regularly interact with 30-100 peers, are ideal. Some will have the preexisting community of an intercollegiate sports team. Others might join the Greek system. These practices come much easier to middle and upper-middle class whites (still the preponderance of the student body) than to their working class or minority fellows. The authors also recommend a serious, meaningful orientation --- for example, a full week of outdoor adventure. But if this isn't paid for by the college it will leave disadvantaged students further behind. 
  2. The authors argue that, contrary to usual practice, the best teachers --- those who are not only expert, but also exciting, engaging, and accessible --- should be teaching introductory classes and the largest lecture classes. Less engaging faculty, though knowledgeable, shouldn't be a student's first experience of a given field.