The Storyteller

A professor's close study of Harvard undergraduates yields rich lessons about what makes college succeed - and how students can make it work for them

Although it took place 36 years ago, when he was a new doctoral student, Richard J. Light still remembers his nervous first meeting with his faculty adviser, professor of mathematical statistics Frederick Mosteller. At the end, Mosteller handed him an article in progress and asked, "Richard, could you please mark up this draft for us to go over when we get together later this week? I would love to get your comments...."

"I was panicked," Light confesses. In the next two days, he read the draft 10 times. When they met, he told the author how superb it was--whereupon, his education began. "Mosteller smiled and told me kindly but directly that he had hoped for something different: 'I treated you like a colleague, but you didn't do that for me.'" He had invited this green graduate student to tear the draft apart in order to improve it. And so Light returned in a few days, "carrying a document covered with red ink." Mosteller then "put my marked-up version on the desk between us, and starting on page one, we went over every suggestion I had made." Many were rejected, but a few were adopted, and all were discussed--and Light absorbed vivid lessons in scholarly collegiality, writing and revision, and effective advising.

During that meeting, he began to become a professional statistician. As important, Light collected his first telling story about the essence of teaching and learning. Those skills, statistics and storytelling, come together in Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, forthcoming from Harvard University Press, which has awarded it the 2001 Virginia and Warren Stone ['54] Prize for works dealing with education and society. The book recounts not only his wide-eyed encounter with Mosteller, but also--in 100-some excerpts from interviews with Harvard College students--equally revealing vignettes about how undergraduates make the most of their precious hours inside the classroom and beyond. Because the stories convey in students' words how they study, learn, and react to their peers within a residential college, it is memorably unlike anything else parents, students, soon-to-be undergraduates, and educators have read.

• • •

During my junior year [a student wrote] I did a one-to-one supervised research paper. I arranged that my supervisor would be a young faculty member....We would meet weekly, and we would take turns choosing the readings for the following week. He pointed out that this format put a substantial responsibility on my shoulders. In my other classes, the professor always chose the readings. Now every other week I had to choose readings that were appropriate for my work. He further reminded me that since I would undoubtedly choose some readings that he had never done before, it was my responsibility to plan our discussions....I was now truly responsible for course planning....I began to think of this wonderful man as my "personal trainer"....I learned more in this one-to-one experience, about history, about literature, and about my own capacities to stretch and grow, than in any other experience here I can think of.


Light's similarly uncharted study of Harvard undergraduates began with an unsolicited telephone call. Following the award of his Ph.D. in 1969, he started teaching in the Graduate School of Education, with the Kennedy School of Government acquiring half his time, an arrangement that still holds. Tenured as professor of education in 1974, he focused on program evaluation (did Head Start work? was bilingual education effective?), education policy, statistics, and research methods--but none of it pertaining to higher education.

Then, in the spring of 1986, President Derek Bok called to ask, "Who in our great University is systematically examining the effectiveness of what we do in a sustained way?"

Armed with this query, and a presidential promise to pay for a series of dinners, Light invited three dozen Harvard faculty members and administrators, and an equal number from 24 other institutions ranging from MIT and Wellesley to Bunker Hill Community College, to join a series of "assessment seminars." They discussed "how we can improve teaching, advising, and the quality of life," as Bok put it. From their monthly conversations came a series of practical questions. Why do some freshmen founder in college, while others with similar high-school preparation thrive? Why do students like foreign-language classes so much? What makes for a memorable course?

Bok's successor, Neil L. Rudenstine, encouraged the investigators to extend their agenda to examine class size, writing, and the practical effects of enrolling a much more diverse student body.

Eager to quantify his findings, Light devised careful questionnaires, defined samples large enough to yield valid results, and trained ranks of faculty and student interviewers to gather the data. Early on, he determined the researchers would solicit conversational responses, rather than colorless "excellent-good-fair-poor" rankings--and conducted 400 interviews himself. The resulting narratives are rich in a way no mere facts could ever be.

Having immersed himself in teaching and learning at Harvard, and after examining 90 other institutions, Light has reached a fundamental conclusion. He recalls hearing a senior dean from another university advocating the philosophy of admitting superb students and then taking pains to "get out of their way." Making the Most of College is a 238-page refutation of laissez-faire. Instead, Light concludes, "Life at college is a complex system, with interrelated parts. Choosing which classes to take when, figuring out how to get to know professors, relating activities outside of classes to learning in formal courses, and especially [deciding] whom to live with at a time of dramatically changing demographics on campus--these are choices each student must make." But as students choose, campus leaders must actively "get in the way"--from arranging housing assignments to offering attentive academic advising and imaginative suggestions about extracurricular options that might awaken a student's intellectual or artistic or professional interests.

Storyteller that he is, Light brings that philosophy to life with a pithy piece of advice from his own advising. After counseling new students about their intended studies and course selection (and being assured by each of their intent "to work hard and do well"), he asks, "What do you see as your job for this term?" When they are stumped--as all invariably are--Light writes, he instructs them, "Your job is to get to know one faculty member reasonably well...and also to have that faculty member get to know you reasonably well."

That guidance stems from a theme students sounded repeatedly: their peak academic experience came from close interaction with professors, whether in a supervised course or thesis setting or in a noncredit apprenticeship, where the student can define a research question and pursue new knowledge. To illustrate the latter, Light presents the story of an undergraduate ballet dancer whose repeated stress fractures led her to study bone development and injury in young turkeys. That work led her to apply to medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon. "I know most people don't find pigs' bones and turkey legs particularly exciting," she said, "but for me it was an unbeatable experience."

Wrapped up in stories like those, Light has found, are multiple lessons about learning. Foremost is the value of close association with an intellectual mentor. Its counterpart is his firm advice not to construct a first-year schedule of large introductory lecture courses. "Who tells students, 'Get your requirements out of the way'?" he asks, chopping the air with his large hands for emphasis during a conversation about his research. "Ironically, that advice comes from well-meaning parents, who are only trying to help their children succeed at the beginning of college." But that strategy, he says, will isolate students from the best sources of satisfaction they will find as undergraduates.

Between the loneliness of the lecture hall and the intense interaction of the tutorial, Light finds a range of opportunities to make learning more involving for students and professors alike. For example, he counsels students to take classes with frequent short papers, rather than one long term paper at the end of the semester. The latter provides no opportunity for midcourse correction based on the professor's reaction. Students (and alumni) rave about demanding foreign-language classes in part because they build skills through regular exercises and immediate feedback.

Better still are classes where students are "required to write papers, not just for the professor...but for their fellow students as well." In seminars where undergraduates share papers as a basis for class discussion, Light discovered, they must adopt "a different approach and a different authorial voice." Understanding of underlying arguments can be assumed in assignments prepared for a faculty expert. But work offered to student peers requires a much more demanding standard of explanation and written thought.

He calls a related technique "structured disagreement." An example from the book took place in an economics seminar on welfare and poverty. Half the students presented a brief supporting rent control for lower-income tenants; the rest of the class made the opposing argument. After the class, the students were assigned to write papers making the case they had just debated against. When asked to describe effective courses, Light writes, several participants brought up this one "with gusto."

These examples, and dozens more, reinforce Light's overarching theme of "getting in the way." The academician's responsibility, he says--all but jumping out of his chair for emphasis--is to "Engage, engage, engage!" Professors, that is, should use the classroom as a venue for active learning, requiring students not only to absorb information but to demonstrate their knowledge.

Light offers a variety of low-technology, essentially cost-free techniques to spark academic engagement. Rather than make homework a solitary pursuit, for example, he thinks students ought to form--and professors to encourage--study groups, to tackle complex problem sets or exercises. Why not organize sections in large lecture courses by House, and schedule them just before dinner, so students can continue the conversation over a meal? He advocates the "one-minute paper" at the end of lectures, in which students quickly record the principal thing they learned that day--and the idea they found most elusive. Faculty members who have adopted the technique (now used in 400 Harvard courses, Light says, and at dozens of other colleges) can quickly perceive what material they need to reinforce, and students listen to lectures more attentively and critically.

Making the Most of College is not a how-to guide, but readers can use it as a primer of sorts. College applicants might ask questions about class organization and pedagogy that are never answered in a course catalog or a campus tour. Students could apply Light's standards to evaluate prospective courses and teachers. Professors can tease out a veritable cookbook of recipes for better conveying the excitement they feel about their fields of expertise. And advisers may be inspired to help students find ways outside the classroom to pursue their interests--recall the ballerina manipulating turkey bones.

For beyond Light's findings on academic life lies a larger lesson. Even as professors enliven class hours, and engage students in the 30 or so hours they invest in homework each week, still more opportunities beckon to enhance the college experience. Among the most dazzling stories he recounts are those of students whose extracurricular activities--particularly in the arts--broadened their studies. By implication, the 120 hours each week students in a residential college spend away from classes, laboratories, and libraries are the least managed, but perhaps the most essential, period in the ultimate success of their education.

• • •

Just before my turn [to introduce herself and present some personal object to her entrymates in their freshman proctor's room, a young woman reported], the guy next to me introduced himself as a Shiite Muslim from Pakistan. His object was a necklace with several pendants of Koranic verses and a curved sword. I was stunned. I hadn't ever had direct contact with a Muslim before, and I had such a historical prejudice and fear of negative interactions between Jews and Muslims.

Shocked and frightened a bit, I went on anyway with what I was going to say, and explained that I was a religious Jew. He turned to me with a big grin and said, "Great! It's always hard to find somebody else who doesn't want pepperoni on their pizza."


One essential aspect of students' broader learning is the experience of their own diversity. Reviewing William Bowen and Derek Bok's The Shape of the River (November-December 1998, page 27), Daniel Steiner regretted that that pathbreaking study of affirmative action in college admissions was "overwhelmingly quantitative." "There is a limit to what numbers can tell us," he noted, about "the texture of people's education...[and] the nuances in experiences and relationships that influence an individual's development." He sought "a more descriptive and penetrating approach."

Many readers may find Making the Most of College most eloquent precisely on this point. Light's interviews establish that different students do bring diverse perspectives to college. For example, when asked what modern books they found especially important and would recommend to fellow students, women mentioned Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and works by Doris Lessing, Eudora Welty, and Virginia Woolf; men barely took note of any of them. African Americans mentioned Alice Walker and Nathan McCall--names brought up by none of the other students sampled. Jewish students nominated Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Muslims Naguib Mahfouz--authors wholly outside other students' experience. Asian Americans cited Lu Xun and others--all new to Light and to other students--and Latinos ranked Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Fuentes atop their lists.

Many students of varying backgrounds told Light that their high-school experience of diversity had been an abject failure, academically and socially, especially in public schools. Rather than developing shared values, they said, their schools emphasized group differences and "getting along," in opposition to "demanding hard work to achieve excellence." An Asian student from outside Chicago told a shattering story about a school torn apart over attempts to have separate academic awards for "students of color." A Caucasian student explained how an influx of non-English-speaking classmates so undermined discipline that her parents transferred her to a private school.

In the college context--with a population committed to shared values of learning and hard academic work--the calculus changes. It becomes "natural and comfortable and quite ordinary for any members of that community to talk with, mix and mingle with, and learn something from people whose backgrounds differ from their own," Light writes. "For many students on many campuses, especially those who grew up in relatively homogeneous communities, this kind of learning is new."

But it is not frictionless, particularly because of the disappointing experiences in secondary school. There are stories of clear misunderstanding based on unquestioned assumptions--about the primacy of an ethnic identity over all others, or the perception that people of one race are excluding another. Hence the need, again, for campus leaders (administrators, faculty members, and students) to "get in the way." One example is the careful construction of first-year housing assignments; another is the deliberate intervention of advisers to assure that people of different backgrounds who live in proximity actually encounter one another. The story of the entryway meeting, above, illustrates both.

Readers may be surprised by some of Light's discoveries about diversity. Religious differences, for instance, emerge as especially powerful. Away from home and put into contact with fellow students of different faiths, many Harvard undergraduates seem to discover the meanings of their own rituals as they encounter and learn about those of their peers.

More broadly, the effects of living in a truly diverse population appear to be genuinely reciprocal. The students interviewed repeatedly tell how their interaction with fellow students changed not only other people, but themselves. In one sociology class, a professor introduced data on illegitimate birth rates by ethnicity, provoking sharp differences of opinion among three African-American students about the appropriateness of the information. "The fellow who was offended by hearing the real-world data quickly learned that two other black students...felt exactly the opposite," challenging his assumptions. And "all the other students saw for themselves that there is some diversity of perspectives among black students here. I think that is a good thing. Especially because it is really true...among all subsets of students from all backgrounds."

It is in awkward encounters like these, the student says--and Light clearly believes--that "a positive learning experience" available in no other way comes about. "For me, as an African-American guy," the student concludes, "this idea of learning from disagreement within a group is one benefit of the word 'diversity' that too often gets overlooked." At its best, Light reports, a college community serious about diversity can overcome not mere awkwardness but the barriers of life in the world beyond. "It is powerful," he writes, "to hear a Korean-American student from Los Angeles describe her pleasure in living with an African-American roommate from that same city"--a city where, they say, such proximity would rarely occur.


Having analyzed his data, Light the statistician feels comfortable advocating active involvement by adult educators so students can realize the potential of their undergraduate experiences--academic, extracurricular, and residential. But he is too good a storyteller to leave it at that: he saves his favorite story for last.

One senior talked at length about his sophomore social-studies tutorial with six other Cabot House residents--"two white guys, two white women, a man from India, a black woman, and a Chinese-American man." Prodded by the students, the instructor insisted that they stick to the required reading list of political philosophers--but allowed them to apply each author's ideas to discussing affirmative action. The students took increasing responsibility for the material, reading carefully because "we knew we would be discussing how those writings would relate to modern debates" on an issue where each student began with strong, declared opinions. "One time the Asian guy turned to the black woman who support[ed] affirmative action and basically said, 'I arrived here in America when I was six years old, and my parents had nothing. We were penniless refugees. You grew up in Scarsdale. How can you argue for affirmative action after reading John Stuart Mill and Edmund Burke? And if affirmative action exists, why are you a candidate for it?'"

From that "electric moment," the student remembered, opinions began to change. "That day was also a test of our civility to one another, and our capacity to disagree with respect. We all passed that test with flying colors." Five of the students remained close friends for the rest of their undergraduate years--a friendship significantly "based around substantive discussions about ideas." And so, turning tables on his interrogator, the senior asked Light, "Isn't that what a college education is all about? And now, to answer your original question about the educational impact of diversity, can you ever imagine seven white guys, all just like me, sitting around a table and accomplishing the same thing?"

John S. Rosenberg is editor of Harvard Magazine.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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