In Academically Adrift (hereafter, AA), Arum and Roksa identify a phenomenon that I assume we all know all too well. George Kuh calls it the disengagement compact (AA, 5). Faculty and students strike a bargain - a rather expensive one. The bargain is one in which teachers agree to ask little of students while providing an entertaining simulation of teaching and good grades, and in which students agree to ask little of teachers while providing compliant behavior and a routine simulation of learning. The teacher is rewarded with time and good student evaluations and the student is rewarded with time and a good GPA.
Who among us would admit to striking such a bargain? Not I. But as Arum and Roksa point out, the bargain is not struck among individuals, nor is it struck in a vacuum. As teachers, we enter an educational system in which this bargain has already been struck collectively. In addition, the bargain is but one among a complex web of tacit agreements among students, faculty, administrators, parents, politicians and government agencies: parents want their children to live in a pleasant, safe environment while becoming more mature and independent; students want a socially engaging college experience; parents and students alike want a credential; professors want a regular, secure salary and time for research; administrators want measurable improvements in student (consumer) satisfaction; politicians want practical outcomes; government agencies want practical, technological innovation. None of the members privy to this agreement have undergraduate student learning as a priority (AA, 124-5).
So what happens if teachers opt out of the bargain? The three areas measured by the instrument used by Arum and Roksa (the CLA) are critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication. These three areas are attested to by all parties - including the business community - as skills a good undergraduate education ought to provide. Arum and Roksa found that three things make the difference between showing no improvement in these areas - being academically adrift - and showing a significant improvement. The first two are taking courses with twenty or more pages of writing per term and taking courses with forty or more pages of reading per week. The third is faculty expectations: the higher the expectations, the more students studied, the more students studied, the more students developed critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication (AA, 119).
What keeps us from opting out of the bargain? The obstacles to individuals opting out are clear: a demoralizing exchange of more time on the teacher's part in return for angry students who will feel betrayed. For those of us with tenure, this is merely demoralizing - at worst the poor student evaluations we would receive might affect our salaries. But for the rest of us - the non-tenured and the non-tenure track, opting out means losing one's job. We know this.
But that is not what I am asking and Arum and Roksa are well aware that faculty face a classic collective action problem. I am asking what stands in the way of faculty agreeing - as a collective - to opt out. Could we do it? Could we agree amongst ourselves to opt out? If not, then we really must take quite a bit of the blame for limited learning. As Arum and Ruksa point out, unlike K-12 teachers, we have substantial professional and social capital (AA, 140). If we wanted to do it, we probably could. So what stands in the way of our prioritizing undergraduate student learning, and can we overcome it?