Did Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) Seven Practices of Good Undergraduate Education Dumb Down American Education? A View from Germany

I just finished my semester teaching as a Guest Professor at Leuphana University in Germany, and am beginning to figure out an answer to a question I get asked frequently: “What is the difference between American and German universities?”  Actually, the German students who have been exchange students in the United States have helped me along.  They say:


In American universities, there’s lots of assignments, busy work really, and the students are not expected to take responsibility for their own learning.  Really it is like [German] high school, not the university.


German university classes in contrast to American universities do not involve a lot of graded work during the semester.  The credit for the entire course comes down to a few ungraded assignments during the semester (typically including a 20 minute oral presentation), and a final test or paper which is the only thing actually evaluated for a grade. Class itself is a combination of student presentation, faculty lecture, and if it is small enough, seminar.  In the case of the paper, it is usually 10-12 pages long—one for each class.  There are no incentives for attendance.  There are also is no preparation for midterms or quizzes–because there are few such tests in the American sense.  The term paper for the class is handed in is due about six weeks after the semester ends. The professor then hands in a grade sometime in the next few months, which is then reported to the student, without elaboration or feedback.  And that’s it—if you pass, you go on to the next semester.


In other words, at this German university, there are classes in which there is little encouragement for contact between students and faculty, professors do not initiate cooperation among students (that is up to the students), there is little feedback from the faculty regarding student work (and feedback need not be prompt), time on task is not monitored, and no one really cares if a student has another way of learning that does not show up on assessment.


The good news, though is that there are high expectations for German students, and if they meet the high expectations, they get a degree at the end of three years or more.  Oh, and before they can also organize complex ideas in their 10-12 pages, read voraciously, and are up to date on current events both within and outside their fields.  But they are this way not because of class content and monitoring by university faculty like me.  Rather they are like that because that is what a good student is.  The 20-30 minute class presentations are generally include high quality analysis, too.  Also, with most German undergraduates you can have an well-informed conversation about their lives or the events of the day in English, German, and perhaps another language.


But is this really good practice in undergraduate education?  According to the gurus of American undergraduate education, Professors Chickering and Gamson (1987)  the German system is a lousy system which should produce


Apathetic students, illiterate graduates, incompetent teaching, impersonal campuses — so rolls the drumfire of criticism of higher education.


The problem of course is that my German students are far from apathetic, certainly not illiterate, and judging from the fact that major political parties show up on campus to court the student vote they are far from apathetic.  As for the incompetence of teaching, I cannot judge that from my perspective, except to note that my German language teacher was pretty good!


Nevertheless in response to the problem that Professors Chickering and Gamson (1987) diagnosed regarding apathy, illiteracy, and incompetence, they prescribed seven best practices for high quality undergraduate education which American faculty are routinely held to in faculty reviews:


1. encourages contact between students and faculty,

2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,

3. encourages active learning,

4. gives prompt feedback,

5. emphasizes time on task,

6. communicates high expectations, and

7.respects diverse talents and ways of learning.


A German academic high schools (Gymnasium) teacher might recognize Chickering and Gamsons (1987) criteria, but the German university system I described above only meets 1/6 of Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) goals, i.e. the one about high expectations.   The other six, are considered to be the responsibility of the student, not the faculty, which is why of course my German students hold American undergraduate education in such low esteem, and typically consider their exchange experience to be “high schoolish.”


The German view is that university faculty is in charge of organizing interesting class to which students will come if they are inclined, and participate when they are prepared.  If they show up sort of regularly, and do the major assignment/test at the end of the semester, they will get credit for the course.  University faculty are not in charge of checking endless assignments, homeworks, administering quizzes and the many other tasks which are really about checking for “time on task,” the metric that is most valued by administrators and faculty?


Could it be too that the reason that the German students believe that American undergraduate education is “like high school” is the fault of Chickering and Gamson (1987)?  I bring this up because since I started teaching American undergraduates in 1996, the administrators who hired me have asked me to include Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seven goals of good undergraduate practice in my employment dossier.  I have dutifully done this, and in a show of faith upped the number of assignments in my classes, made a point of returning assignments quickly, encouraged active learning in the assignments I make, tried to make sure that I assigned 2 hours of reading/out of class work for each Carnegie unit the students receive, and checked to see if they did it by using quizzes.  I am an accountable professor!  But does this really make me a good professor who creates students who think creatively and deeply about sociology as I see my German students doing?


And anyway, what do we in the American system get in response?  Undergraduates who are like, well, high school students in their capacity to work independently (meaning they work like well-supervised high school students).  The expectations authored by Chickering and Gamson (1987) have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We defined high quality as demanding a lot of busywork (not critical thinking, routine reading, or the capacity to work independently, and surprise, we get undergraduates who


–contact faculty frequently

–do group work

–equate active learning with recreational activities

–expect prompt and voluminous feedback rather than editing themselves

–spend a lot of time doing homeworks

–read for the detail on quizzes rather than for “fun”

–have high expectations of their own abilities, and

–expect learning accommodations to be made for different learning styles


This is not to say that German students are faultless.  Indeed, the German system has recently undergone major reform because students frequently floated away from a system that by American standards can be pretty brutal (it is easier to flunk a student you do not know, than one who has frequent contact with faculty).  German students also take too long to graduate, and so forth.  I should add, that my experience last semester is that American attendance patterns are a bit better than German, and punctuality is also a lot better at Chico State, where I routinely start class within 15 seconds of the class start time, a process which seems to take 5-10 minutes here…).


Still, when the German students do finally get to class, they bring intellectual preparation that my American students do not.  But then again, habits of intellectual engagement, like voluminous reading, independent thought, oral presentations, and routinely crafting 10-12 page essays are really not part of what Chickering and Gamson (1987) have defined as high quality undergraduate education, are they?



Chickering and Gamson (1987).  There are hundreds if not thousands of copies of Chickering and Gamson’s original article floating around on the internet.  If you really want to read it (I encourage you to do so), either click the link embedded in the article, or simply google it up!

Why Does Anthropology Worry about Jared Diamond when they have Nigel Barley?

The Anthropology blogosphere (including Ethnography.com, SavageMinds.org, anthropologyreport.com and even National Public Radio) has recently lit up with critiques of Jared Diamond’s new book The World Until Yesterday.  Jared Diamonditis seems to be a regular affliction of anthropology, re-emerging every time that the esteemed Professor of Geography (and Physiology) publishes a new tome of big picture history.  The manner that Diamond does this is something that anthros really don’t seem to like.  This is because besides his own field of Geography, Diamond borrows data liberally from all four fields of anthropology to make big generalizations in a manner a cultural geographer, comparative historian, or field ecologist might. But oh yeah, Diamond is a geographer by departmental affiliation, and a field ecologist by training and predilection.

It also seems to bother anthros that Diamond also on occasion—though not always—wanders off the reservation and lets his political views seep into his analysis.  And since these political views don’t typically jibe with those of the anthros, particularly when it comes to oil companies, well you get the idea.  But then there is a counterpoint, someone finally ends up pointing out that since no anthro since Eric Wolf has done such big picture stuff in Europe and the People without History published way back in 1982, anthro has no right to complain.  And so it goes back and forth until the next big tome from Diamond comes out, and Jared Diamonditis flares up again.

Ok, that’s my two paragraphs for the current “controversy.”  In response, I want to write about an anthropologist—an ethnographer actually—who I think is greatly undervalued in anthropology, Nigel Barley.  Barley describes well what anthropologists do best in The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut published in 1984.  This is the book I point students to when they want to understand field work, ethnography, and cultural anthropology.  As a sociologist, this is one of the anthro books I truly admire, because it reflects well on my own field experiences in Tanzania.  Oddly, I find few anthropologists who have read it, much less heard of it.

The Innocent Anthropologist is a memorably written story of Nigel Barley’s experience doing fieldwork among the Dowayo in rural Cameroon in the early 1980s.  The strength of the book is that it includes the personal problems that emerge with the frustrations, boredom, tribulations, and mis-interpretations that inevitably emerge in the context of “doing ethnography.”  In this sense the book is much different than the dispassionate, theoretical, and methodologically rigorous ethnography typically assigned undergraduates.  In such ethnograpny in  the ethnographer somehow ends up erudite, insightful, and making references to Bourdieu and Baudrillard while drinking the local brew.  Nothing wrong with this, but let’s face it, it is not the sort of thing that a 19 year-old taking your Intro to Cultural Anthro course for General Education credit identifies with.

Barley also does a great job explaining the nuts and bolts of doing ethnography in a remote Cameroonian village.  There are empathetic descriptions of coming-of-age rituals, ancestor cults, gender relations, the agricultural cycle, and a well-written nod to Malinowski.  There are also empathetic passages describing boredom, cross-cultural frustrations, and hilarious language learning errors.  And what students will really remember is Barley’s explanation of how the mechanic at the dentist’s office removed his two front teeth.  Such an account would never make its way into a standard ethnography (sorry, no spoiler here–you need to get the book!). And of course such tales, which are really the center of the ethnographic experience are left out by the likes of the ever-dignified Professor Malinowski.

But the scene from Barley’s book I spend most of my time mulling about is at the very end, and has little to do with Africa, but everything to do with ethnography, culture, and the human condition.  Barley spent a year and a half in Cameroon being bored, sick, confused, and frustrated while ostensibly “doing ethnography.” Oddly though, after returning to England, he still wants to tell everyone he meets about this wonderful world he encountered in Cameroon—something that he quickly discovers no one really cares about.  Or worse, they treat him like a raving lunatic because he approaches everyday problems with a vigor and habitus appropriate to a Cameroonian village, rather than that of a staid tweed-jacketed English lecturer.

So Barley returns to England, where he finds out that life is—as it had always been, despite his field work in the Cameroon. People ask him how Cameroon was, complain about the English weather, and then launch off into conversations about the more mundane things of life, like what was on television the previous evening, or the doings of the local football team.  Most mundane is the friend who complains because Barley left a sweater at his apartment some two years ago—could he please pick it up some time?  Like, who cares about a sweater when you have been dealing with ancestor cults, goat farts (sorry no spoiler on that one either!), shamanistic ritual, and have lost your two front teeth!?!?

But this indeed is how the big adventures of life often end: In a question about a forgotten sweater.  This happens whether we are ethnographers, archaeologists, or any other kind of long-term traveler who becomes embedded in a new culture.  Certainly it happens to my undergraduate students who leave home for Chico State the first time, and then return to the parents at Thanksgiving or Christmas brimming with tales of college life, only to be told by their parents to be sure to eat enough lettuce and clean up their room.  Indeed such dissonance happens to anyone returning from a adventure in which they embed themselves in a culture different from their own.  And this indeed is the great ethnographic lesson Barley teaches my undergraduates.  What is more, it is a lesson every bit as big as what Jared Diamond makes with his massive tomes.

Oh, despite his frustrations, whining, and moaning, did I mention that Barley returned to the Cameroon a few months later?  He was indeed hooked on field work and the need to experience new cultures, as we hope our students will—after all the complaining and lost teeth, he was back in Cameroon as quickly as he could.

It has long mystified me that The Innocent Anthropologist is not a staple of Intro to Cultural Anthropology courses.  It is well written, funny, empathetic, theoretical, and easy to read.  And students are happy to read it—the whole thing.  Most importantly, it is a fantastic introduction to what ethnographers do, why they do it, and what an anthropological viewpoint has to say about not just a small place in Cameroon, but the human condition.  I have used this book in my undergraduate social science classes a number of times, and it has always worked well to get students dreaming about the possibilities of culture and travel—i.e. the things that I would expect a good Intro to Cultural Anthropology course to do.  And the neat thing is that it can do it by celebrating what anthropology does best—while leaving poor irrelevant Jared Diamond out of the story.

Chico Rocks, and Berkeley…

I was back on the Chico State campus last week, and the new first year students are here, parents hovering nearby as they prepare to cast them out to wilds of Chico State.  The newly minted frosh are of course relishing this—they realize that Chico Rocks, and that they have finally managed to land where they are meant to be, if only they can finally ditch their parents, and seek out what the college president insists are that elusive “Chico Experience.”


So in this essay I will confirm:  junior you’ve made it.  I know that you could have gone to UC Berkeley, but somehow you managed to elude that destiny.  Some of you flat out turned down the offer of a free ride to Berkeley—and we thank you for having the gumption to do so.  Others of you were trickier and more devious in avoiding being cast into the huge classes of Berkeley, even though that was your parents’ greatest desire.  Perhaps you cut class during that 11th grade history exam in order to ruin your 4.0 gpa.  Or you got placed in detention during that stupid health exam for talking in class.  Maybe you hung out behind the gym doing who knows what.  Or perhaps you (like me) you flunked p.e.  Whatever it was, congratulations and well-done!  Now you’ve arrived at Chico State, and you can finally announce to all Chico Rocks, and Berkeley Sucks!


Now, go read this essay which will put into big words what you have known all along about the relationship between Chico and Berkeley.  Your parents are bound to be amazed at your learned erudition when you roll in next Thanksgiving.  And to top it off, the geek from you high school who made it into Berkeley (and refused to cut  the history test or hang out behind the gym) won’t really understand what it is about, and will stomp off huffing and puffing and announce “Sour Grapes!”


Back form reading the essay?  Good.  Now go out and drop that Accounting Class, and sign up for a Sociology Class.  Intro to Sociology (Sociology 100) will do—your goal should be to work yourself up to Classical Social Theory where you can learn more about the astonishing thoughts of not only Max Weber, but also Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, W. E. B. DuBois and Mary Wollstonecraft.  (Yes, that’s the same Karl Marx you might learn about in Berkeley, but we put a slightly different spin on it at Chico!).  I guarantee you that you will really like Mary Wollstonecraft in particular—all students do.  Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first writers who described the weird dance between men and woman—and offered a virtuous formula for getting past the nonsense you, as new students recently freed of your parents, will likely be engaging in as you prance about the dining commons seeking “true love.”


So you’ve checked Chico State’s Fall 2012 schedule and found out that there are no sections of Sociology 100 available?  Yep, that’s right, the man (that’s Governor Jerry Brown and the State Legislature) cut a bunch of Sociology 100 sections this year so your parents and their friends do not have to pay as much in taxes as your grandparents did to the same Governor Brown (he never goes away).  But don’t worry, generational inequality is a problem which you will also learn about in Sociology.  The end result is that you can’t get your sociology class, even though your parents did.  So you better stick out Accounting, but be sure to be aggressive about getting it next semester.  That way I will hopefully see you in Classical Social Theory in your sophomore year!

Immigration Trials and Tribulations

I came across a review “Green Card Stories: A Visual Catalog of Immigrants Trials and Tribulations” of a new book photo book.  The review is by a writer for The Atlantic, Maria Popova, and focused on the role that determination, sacrifice, and stamina play in navigating the complicated immigration in the United States.  As the book (and reviewer) note, it takes grit and determination to satisfy immigration law, and many end up spending years, and hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on application fees, lawyer fees, and so forth.  And indeed, I know that this is true, since to bring my German wife to the United States in 1988, I dealt with this.  For us it took hundreds of dollars in fees and multiple trips to Embassies and Immigration offices in distant cities and three years before the green card to which she was entitled under the law showed up in our post box.  My favorite conversation with an immigration officer occurred after waiting in line for five hours at the San Francisco Immigration office went something like this:

She: “Your file is not in our Computer!”

Me: “But your computer sent me a letter to come here.”

She: “But you’re not in our Computer.”

Me: “But you are the one called us….”

She: “Harumph.  Your papers will be processed.”

Me:  ”What telephone number can I call if to check to see if things are going ok?”

She:  ”The public number.”

Me:  ”But that number takes several hours to get through.  And how do I ask for you in order to see that things are going ok?”

She:  ”You can’t ask for me.  My name is secret, you need to call the public number.”

And indeed, I do agree that the determination of the immigrants profiled in the new book is commendable for dealing with systems and people like the woman I encountered.  But I really wonder why all this is really necessary?  Does immigration processing need to be so complicated?

As an American, I’ve been through immigration in Thailand, Tanzania, and Germany, in addition to my experiences with US immigration and my German wife. The US is the most expensive, the slowest, and the least efficient of the lot.  As a result, perhaps, the United States also has the largest percentage of “illegal” immigrants, perhaps because that is the country that has the most cumbersome immigration requirements.

Germany in 2007 was my favorite.  I was hired by a Germany university in 2007-2008 to teach for the year.  The university gave me the papers to get my work permit when I arrived, and I threw my marriage certificate in for good measure.  I rode my bike down to the local immigration office, where I waited in line about five minutes.  I showed the immigration officer the papers.  She swept the work from the university aside, and held up our marriage certificate:

“I see you have a real German wife!”

Yes, I certainly did.  She asked: “Can you produce the real German wife and a photograph of yourself?”

Certainly I could—would tomorrow work?  Yes certainly.  The next day we rode our bikes to the immigration office and I showed the immigration officer my real live German wife, and gave her the photographs.  She looked at her watch, and asked,

“How long are you going to stay in Germany?”

“One year,” I announced proudly.

Well, then, she said, “come back after lunch, and we will give you your passport with the visa!”

We went back after lunch, and lo and behold, there was my passport with the brand new German work permit, good for two years, which apparently was what I was entitled to under German immigration law.

Well, that’s my nice story about immigration agents.  And it really is my only nice one (Oh, except for the counters at Chinese immigration offices where you can rate the service by pushing on buttons with a smiley face or frown—but who is going to do that when all you want do is avoid pissing the officer with the entry stamp off?)

Now for some more nasty immigration stories.  There was the time I was briefly put in a rather nice locked “waiting room” in the Frankfurt airport for an hour or so because I left my passport on the plane.  I was threatened with deportation—anyway it was a lousy way to spend the Christmas Day, 2010.

Then there was the time I was “deported” from the United States to Mexico for unknowingly getting in the Express Lane at the border crossing.  The US Immigration Officer, thought he was a comedian (“Do you want to pay $5000, have your car seized, or drive back into Mexico?”).

And once I left my dad and his wife alone in Burundi for about an hour, while I drove 5 kilometers in to Tanzania to find the Burundian border guards who were drinking with their Tanzanian counterparts (talk about a good way to guarantee good international border relations—perhaps the Americans and Mexicans should give it a go).

And then I spent a whole week once in the Tanzanian Immigration office waiting for paperwork to be processed—I took a book and waited with all the Malawians and Indians.  I was never threatened me with deportation; but it was very slow as they went through the paper files.

Anyway, this all brings me back to all those immigrants whose photographs and stories are in Green Cards Stories.  Through perseverance they made it.  Sure, ok.  But I really wish that they had had the same experience I had in Germany.  Follow the rules, and you get your passport back after lunch, and all you have to do is follow the law by bringing in a real live German wife.

Oh, and I think I forgot to mention how much it cost to get my German “green card” work permit.  The answer is that it cost what the photographs cost me, and the wear on my bicycle tire—the visa was free; regulation of immigration is done at the cost of the German government, and not the individual immigrant.  Which perhaps helps explain why legitimate immigrants rush in to cooperate with immigration officers in Germany.  And funny enough, despite the absence of immigration torture, immigrants to Germany are as happy to be there as the American immigrants described in “Green Card Stories.”

Changes at Ethnography.com, and an Invitation to Blog

If anyone has paid close attention, which we doubt, to the “masthead” at Ethnography.com, you will have noticed some changes.  Our founder and Czar, Mark Dawson, has been kicked upstairs, and is now, “Czar Emeritus. “ So after stints in California, Iraq, Alaska, Afghanistan, and Florida Mark is now reigning from an undisclosed location where he is preparing for this December’s Mayan Apocalypse on behalf of AAA.  In particular, he needs codices about Mayan Magic—you can seek him out at AAA in San Francisco this November—maybe your donation will reach him in time that he can prevent the end of the discipline.  Sadly though, this great task will take him away from Ethnography.com, and thus his status as Emeritus.


Mysteriously, since I do not hold the magic codes to the masthead page, I have been promoted to the position of Czar at Ethnography.com, a position that did not seem to have much influence or authority when Mark reigned, and may have even less now.  At the same time, two “Anthroguys” from Fresno State, Hank Delcore, and James Mullooly have appeared on the masthead, and I have been assured will be blogging regularly here.  They have a great track record at their Anthrogeek blog (Jim), and the Anthroguys blog (both Hank and Jim), and we look forward to seeing what they throw up here!


But this does not seem to be enough to keep this blog going, and so we invite you, dear reader, to submit blogs of anywhere from 200-1000 words (or so) which might be appropriate.  Email them to me at twaters@csuchico.edu.  They should have something to do with ethnography, academia, social science, or the like.  Laments about the difficulties on the Anthro job market are fine, but so are successes.  Tales about anthropological travel, archaeological shenanigans, learning languages, and other relevant subjects are appropriate.  We also like tales about the successes of anthropologists who do not have a Ph.D. degree, whether or not it makes you the big bucks.  After all the glory is in the chase–


We are not competing with peer-reviewed journals, so your blog should not be too boring, indeed you might even be humorous!  It is also nice if your writing is accessible to the “bright sophomore.” This means to avoid really long sentences, tendentious jargon, and opaque theoretical references. Typos should also be avoided (though somehow they always seem to slip into my writing). If you are faculty, it is o.k. to write about teaching, but please don’t grumble about students.  If you are a student, it is o.k. to complain about faculty—they are big enough to fend for themselves.


In other words, your ethnographic imagination is the limit—blog away.