Chambliss and Takacs, How College Works: The Importance of Place

Chambliss and Takacs rely on sociologist Randall Collins’s theory of “how emotionally bonded groups come to exist.” What struck me is how material the theory is – how it’s not just institutions in the abstract, but the physical spaces themselves, that contribute to a sense of belonging. The best example in How College Works is Hamilton’s Science Center. Yet the emotional bonding that takes place at the Science Center is in part due to a sense of exclusivity, and is thus in tension with the inclusivity valued by critical librarianship.

Even within a selective liberal arts college like Hamilton, the sciences are seen a further narrowing of the field. Science majors regard themselves as an elite. They come better prepared from their high schools and take harder courses in college. (The authors, themselves social scientists, believe that natural science courses really are more rigorous than those in other departments). Yet the result is that women are underrepresented. They’re less likely to tolerate poor introductory teachers and leave for other majors. Students with less preparation from high school, disproportionately minorities, are at a disadvantage. Moreover, science is increasingly taught via research-based education, which may be better for future scientists but not for the majority of students. In short, the authors see a rigorous science education as a good thing, and something that should be available to more than a relatively small, self-selected share of students (119-126).

Collins argues that there are four requirements necessary for a “dynamics of belonging,” all of which are present within the sciences at Hamilton. The Science Center, and its many labs and classrooms designed for different disciplines, provide for the physical copresence of people.1 Lab experiments and activities make for a shared focus of attention, and for ritualized common activities. And the Science Center’s existence, set off from the rest of the college, as well as science students’ perceived status as an elite, give the sciences an exclusivity based on clearly defined boundaries (79-81).

The Writing Center, in contrast, gives up some of the exclusivity of the sciences for a deeper integration across the college. It still maintains a particular status because of the importance of writing at the college. The student tutors at the Writing Center meet peers from across the disparate subcommunities on the campus and thuse are near the center of the larger social network amont Hamilton students — thus reinforcing the curricular primacy of writing at the college.

The Science Center and the Writing Center together point to ways libraries should consider their physical space. Libraries can, like the Science Center, fulfill Collins’s four requirements for a dynamics of belonging. The library allows for physical copresence with one’s peers. The work done at the library forms a ritualized common activity. And those students who spend time in the library come to recognize each other and to consider themselves an exclusive set.

This leaves out the second of Collins’s requirements: that there be a shared focus of attention. When considering the library as a study space, there is a tension between this requirement and C&T’s argument that study alone is more effective than in groups. When studying alone, even co-present people have different foci of attention.

But libraries have moved away from their traditional role as a space for concentrated individual study. Instead they emphasize group-friendly additions like lounges, presentation rooms, and the “information commons.” Yet where else can students go for quiet study space? For this is what libraries, better than anyone else, can provide. The library should enable the copresence of peers around the ritualized common activity of concentrated study, in an atmosphere that asserts the importance and the exclusivity of that concentrated study. Surely this is how the physical space of the library can best help college to work.

Other posts in this series:

  1. On Chambliss and Takacs, How College Works
  2. Chambliss and Takacs, How College Works: Teaching and Learning Skills

  1. C&T are, unsurprisingly, not big fans of MOOCs or of online learning in general.