AWOL from Academics

alt text here

Illustration by Islenia Mil

I recently started using an application that tracks my work, producing weekly summaries of time spent on each activity, such as homework, socializing, or eating a meal. I was surprised to find I spend far, far less time on my classes than on my extracurricular activities—working as a research assistant, editing columns for the Crimson, or writing for Harvard Magazine. It turns out that I’m not alone in my meager coursework. Although the average college student spent around 25 hours a week studying in 1960, the average was closer to 15 hours in 2015.

I’ve come to believe that this decline represents a fundamental and under-discussed transformation in how students—especially Harvard students—view school. Many onlookers and alumni likely have a sense of this trend, but I doubt they realize the full extent of it. This fall, one of my friends did not attend a single lecture or class section until more than a month into the semester. Another spent 40 to 80 hours a week on her preprofessional club, leaving barely any time for school. A third launched a startup while enrolled, leaving studying by the wayside.

These extreme examples are outliers. But still, for many students, instead of being the core part of college, class is simply another item on their to-do list, no different from their consulting club presentation or their student newspaper article. Harvard has increasingly become a place in Cambridge for bright students to gather—that happens to offer lectures on the side.

In stark contrast, English professor James Engell told me that when he was a Harvard student, “there was a sense…that the primary reason for your being in the College was to take courses, and to spend a lot of time on them”—a belief which, in his eyes, has “eroded some.” Indeed, data from the Crimson’s senior survey indicates that students devote nearly as much time collectively to extracurriculars, athletics, and employment as to their classes.

That erosion of a focus on academics has certainly been present in my Harvard experience, as evidenced by my experiment in time tracking. As I approach graduation, I’ve been asking myself why.

 

Half of the blame can be assigned to grade inflation, which has fundamentally changed students’ incentives during the past several decades. Rising grades permit mediocre work to be scored highly, and students have reacted by scaling back academic effort. I can’t count the number of times I’ve guiltily turned in work far below my best, betting that the assignment will nonetheless receive high marks.

I don’t want to over-idealize past generations. Students likely have always cut corners and skimped on schoolwork. But the current lack of effort from even some of the most academically inclined and intellectually curious students would surprise many.

One casualty of these easy A’s has been the amount of reading students do. I kept hearing from professors in my interviews that students don’t do as many readings as they used to. Russian studies professor Terry Martin told me that “Reading seems to have fallen in status or as a normative academic task.”

Indeed, three of my friends and I took a high-level seminar one semester, and, although we knew hundreds of pages of readings would be assigned each week, we were excited about the prospect of engaging with the material. As time went on, the percentage of readings each of us did went from nearly 100 to nearly 0.

In the final class, each student was asked to cite their favorite readings, and the professor was surprised that so many chose readings from the first few units. That wasn’t because the students happened to be most interested in those classes’ material; rather, that was the brief period of the course when everyone actually did some of the readings.

Despite having barely engaged with the course material, we all received A’s. I don’t mean to blame the professors for our poor work ethic, but we certainly would have read more had our grades been at risk. At the time, we bemoaned our own lack of effort. By that point in the semester, though, many other commitments had started requiring more of us, so prioritizing curiosity for its own sake became difficult.

And therein lies the second reinforcing effect of grade inflation, which not only fails to punish substandard schoolwork but actively incentivizes it, as students often rely on extracurriculars to get ahead. Amanda Claybaugh, dean of undergraduate education, made this point in a recent New York Times interview, saying that “Students feel the need to distinguish themselves outside the classroom because they are essentially indistinguishable inside the classroom.”

Each week, I faced the difficult choice between doing the class’s readings or finishing extracurricular work. I invariably chose the latter.

Each week, on the days leading up to the seminar, I faced the difficult choice between doing the class’s readings or finishing extracurricular work. I invariably chose the latter, both because the cost of not doing the readings was low and because the benefits of doing other tasks were high. After all, I was relying on my research role for a reference and on my student newspaper articles as samples for an internship application. In the moment, such a choice may even have been prudent, but the accumulation of such decisions every semester, in nearly every class, resulted in cheating myself out of an education.

 

Grade inflation, though, is only half the story in explaining my generation’s approach to school. One would expect that easy grades would produce a careless attitude towards classwork. While students certainly aren’t working as hard as they could be, we’re still incredibly intentional about the (meager) time that we do devote to schoolwork.

Professor Martin, for example, wrote to me in an email that “students today…want to please, they want to understand what is expected of them in the course and to fulfill those expectations (as a general rule).” But that approach “comes at the cost of intellectual curiosity for its own sake and intellectual originality and even boldness.”

Martin told me that he used to get more essays “where the student was trying to ‘jerk your chain,’ i.e., write something that completely contradicts what you’ve been teaching,” but this is no longer as common. That certainly resonates with my own experiences. When approaching essays, I often automatically start by thinking about what my professor or teaching assistant wants to hear, rather than what I want to argue or what I have authentically learned.

Instead of becoming wholly careless towards classes, then, students are often incredibly intentional about earning the (easy) A, at the cost of true or genuine curiosity. One of my classmates last semester, who is one of the more academically oriented people I know, told me that to get the best grade on an important essay, he simply “regurgitated the readings” without thinking critically about the material.

 

This utilitarian approach to schoolwork requires a cultural explanation beyond grade inflation, and some of the blame must be placed on the newly meritocratic nature of college admissions. Although the partial shift away from the monied legacy networks that dominated Ivy League spots has been beneficial overall, the change also initiated a résumé arms race. Freshmen have been steeped in a competitive attitude from a very young age, meaning they arrive at Harvard still attempting to maximize each moment or opportunity to stand out. As my last piece for this magazine mentions, nationwide surveys of incoming freshman confirm this narrative, as an increasingly large share of first-years view college as preparation for financial success rather than a site of learning per se.

This attitudinal shift helps explain not only the decline in schoolwork but also the decidedly pragmatic way students now approach classes. Indeed, Engell told me that he increasingly sees students approach a given course in “the most efficient way, simply to use it in the most effective way to advance some ulterior goal.” (Explore Engell’s thoughts on the humanities, and this larger question, in “Humanists All,” January-February 2023, page 34.)

The Real World of College, by Wendy D. Fischman, a project director at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and professor Howard Gardner, confirmed Engell’s perception empirically. They conducted a survey of 1,000 undergraduates around the country. The students they interviewed “don’t talk a lot about not understanding things in class—that’s not the stress,” Fischman said. “The stress is about getting the A and getting the 4.0.” (Read more at “Aiming for Excellence,” July-August 2022, page 55.)

This attitude is one manifestation of what Fischman and Gardner call a “transactional model” of college. According to their book, a so-called transactional student “goes to college and does what (and only what) is required to get a degree and then secure placement in graduate school and/or a job; college is viewed principally, perhaps entirely, as a springboard for future-oriented ambitions.” I’m ashamed to admit that this approach has all too often fit my own approach to school, and I can’t help but notice that it also describes many of those around me.

They found that almost half of students (45 percent) approached college with a transactional mindset. Engell used the very same language: “We have reached a point where the norm is generally to see courses as transactional.” These comments perfectly match my Harvard experience. I’ve noticed that I often internalize readings or assignments only insofar as they help me to succeed in a class, leaving no time to genuinely ruminate on the material. I’ve often had to pause to ask myself, “Do I agree with what I’m writing?” Mostly, though, I forgot even to ask that question: I’ve become so focused on crafting a palatable essay that the content almost becomes irrelevant.

The unquestioning nature of that pragmatism lies at the heart of why after each semester, regretting my lack of academic rigor, I simply repeat the same mistake again the next term. It’s easy to commit to idealistic principles about academics when enrolling for classes, but, as the semester goes on and everyone similarly neglects authentic learning in the name of making the grade or earning a job, I inevitably fall into doing the same without even thinking.

And that uncritical seamlessness is the most concerning part of the trend. When I joined a consulting club my freshman fall, it wasn’t exactly that I was calculating four years down the line, thinking I needed this club to land a prestigious internship to, in turn, land a coveted full-time job. Instead, the club was branded as the next, natural thing to strive for, in large part because of its prestige and the fact that everyone else I knew was applying.

To be fair to myself, my gradual reflection on this dynamic throughout my Harvard career is part of the reason that my activities—writing for the Crimson and Harvard Magazine, or doing macroeconomic research—now more genuinely reflect my interests. And, though I still spend a worryingly small share of my time on coursework, it’s much higher than it used to be.

In contrast, a professor who is also a College alumnus recently told me that he spent most of his time at Harvard taking five or six classes a semester without doing extracurriculars. Hearing that made me think I’ve probably approached this place in the wrong way. I was discussing the professor’s comments with my roommate the other day, and we both agreed that if we were to go back and redo our undergraduate education, we would basically drop all our extraneous clubs and take as many classes as possible.

 

But even this regret springs from a misinterpretation of the fundamental problem, which lies not in excessive extracurricular focus per se but in our frenetic and transactional attitude toward the whole college experience. Replacing manic pre-professionalism with manic studying, then, might be an improvement, but it would likely reproduce the problem in another form. That’s also why simply quelling grade inflation would be insufficient. While the prospect of a B+ may have compelled my friends and me to do the seminar readings, we likely would have done so only to make the grade, not out of a genuine curiosity.

The more general answer may lie in contemplating whether our activities truly represent our priorities. This approach requires refusing the instinct to overburden oneself with commitments and making the time to genuinely explore class material. For others, though, the solution may lie outside of academics. After all, a lot of Harvard’s value comes from its world-class student organizations like the Crimson. But those commitments should spring from an intrinsic desire, not from a desire to appeal to a potential employer.

Above all, we need to give serious reflection to our endeavors. Creating time for that reflection is the advice I would give to incoming students. Not because this will make them smarter (though it will), but because that’s where the transformative value of college lies. Take it from someone who missed out on (a large part of) that feeling. 

Read more articles by Aden Barton

You might also like

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

Animal (Code) Cracker

After listening to leviathans, an undergraduate comes to conservation.  

Breaking Bread

Alexander Heffner ’12 plumbs the state of democracy.

Most popular

Prepare for AI Hackers

Human systems of all kinds may soon be vulnerable to subversion by artificial intelligence.

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

The Missing Middle

How overheated political attention warps campus life

More to explore

Architect Kimberly Dowdell is Changing Her Profession

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

How Schizophrenia Resembles the Aging Brain

The search for schizophrenia’s biological basis reveals an unexpected link to cellular changes seen in aging brains.

Harvard Researchers on Speaking to Whales

Project CETI’s pioneering effort to unlock the language of sperm whales