Academic Horror Story (Reed College)

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Reed College, my alma mater, gets some very bad publicity. An extremely smart student named Chris Langan chose Reed over the University of Chicago, which thirty years later he calls “a huge mistake.” While he was at Reed, his mom failed to fill out a form to renew his scholarship. Here’s what Langan told Gladwell:

At some point, it came to my attention that my scholarship had not been renewed. So I went to the office to ask why, and they told me, Well, no one sent us the financial statement, and we allocated all the scholarship money and it’s all gone, so I’m afraid you don’t have a scholarship anymore. That was the style of the place. They simply didn’t care. They didn’t give a shit about their students. There was no counseling, mo mentoring, nothing.

Losing his scholarship did Langan enormous damage. He never finished college. According to Gladwell, Langan is wrong.

Langan talks about dealing with Reed . . . as if [it] were some kind of vast and unyielding government bureaucracy. But colleges, particularly small liberal arts colleges like Reed, tend not to be rigid bureaucracies. [No examples given.] . . . Would [the physicist Robert] Oppenheimer [supposedly more persuasive than Langan] have lost his scholarship at Reed? . . . Of course not.

That is the myth of the small liberal arts college, yes. But how true is the myth — at least in the case of Reed?

About seven years ago, I returned to Reed to give a talk. I had some spare time so I decided to visit Reed’s best-known course, a survey of Western Civilization that is required of all freshman and sophomores. I hadn’t had to take it because I entered Reed as a junior. I wondered what it was about. I found it. The large lecture hall was almost empty. Maybe there were 15 students; the enrollment must have been about 400. A young professor was giving a staggeringly boring lecture about some Greek classic.

Later I asked a Reed student why attendance was so low. She said that in the very beginning, fall semester (it was now spring semester), attendance was high but the students quickly realized the lectures weren’t helpful and stopped coming. The lecturer, I realized, didn’t care about the students. He didn’t have tenure and was trying to impress an older professor I’d seen in the audience who might influence whether he got tenure.

I’ve told Reed professors this story. They did not explain why a required course, really the required course, supposedly the centerpiece of a Reed education, was/is so poorly taught.

I think Langan’s story and the Western Civ story are two examples of how most colleges, including small liberal arts colleges, are not run for the benefit of students. I imagine the Reed professors I spoke to understood this; but it was unspeakable. I think the result is a power-law distribution of damage: A large fraction of students suffer small bad things (such as a lecture that’s a waste of time and tuition) and a small fraction of students (such as Langan) suffer nightmarishly-bad treatment.

For Whom Do Colleges Exist?

The !Golden Rule and Reed College.

7 Responses to “Academic Horror Story (Reed College)”

  1. Lauren Rosenthal Says:

    I went to the U. of Chicago, poor Langan, Chicago is no different from Reed, probably worse. Complete contempt for the undergrads.

  2. Anthony Says:

    I like the idea of a power-law distribution of damage.

    I wonder if Langan was actually damaged by not finishing college. My guess is that a large percentage of wage benefits attributed to college are selection effects. If you took 100 people about to go to university, and then had 50 of them not go to university but instead do other useful things with their time, in 25 years which group would have the higher mean and median net worths? I wonder …

    The university I went to for my undergrad focused mostly on research. Teaching undergrads seemed a distant second (or third, or …) in priorities, despite lip service. It was very big, and so suffered from a lack of sense of community. I was as an atom floating in the academic void, and I have virtually no sense of loyalty or fondness for the place now (their alumni fundraising letters were to no avail).

    Professors and classes ran the gamut, from big lecture halls with boring lecturers who could barely speak English (typically in 1st or 2nd year), to small, intimate seminars with good teachers.

    In retrospect, it would have made much more sense to have researched the options available much more before selecting a university. At the time, I partially blamed myself for not liking the (boring, unintelligible, and so on) lectures.

  3. C. Bailey Says:

    I go to Reed College, and I consider it incredibly valuable and find this to be a very biased presentation of the academic situation at Reed. Humanities is a required course, and many students enjoy it–I personally went to nearly all the hum lectures. It’s true that attendance drops off second semester in the spring, but I have a few comments on this matter:
    1) Reed tends to take a sink-or-swim approach to academics. It takes risks on who it admits, meaning that there are a lot of freshman who realize they are not up to the academic rigors of Reed, or who have to learn to get their shit together. So hum is not the pinnacle of education at Reed–rather it is an introductory class with a group of students with vast interests, some of whom will stay at Reed, some of whom will not.
    2) I would say that hum is far from the centerpiece of the Reed education–hum is getting your feet wet. The centerpiece of the Reed education is writing an undergraduate thesis. Which is a much more personalized experience.
    3) There are other aspects of hum that are much more personal, primarily in the conference section. For example, paper conferences where you would sit down with your professor and discuss how you could have improved your paper for an hour.
    4) When you are in introductory classes, you have to make more of an effort to get individualized attention even at a liberal arts college just by nature of the fact that professors are more invested in students they have a lasting relationship with and know well.

    I have also found professors at Reed to be nothing but accessible and accomodating. One professor let me work in his lab last semester. Another regularly sends me links to webpages of people who do research I might be interested in doing in graduate school. Another invited me over to his house to spend Christmas with his family when I got caught in a snow storm. I can drop by their office to ask academic questions or share a journal article that I find interesting whenever their door is open.

    My professors work incredibly hard soley because they love to teach and bend over backwards to benefit their students. Hell, in my introductory chemistry class, my professor knew all 150 of our names.

  4. seth Says:

    Your professors “love to teach”? I’d love to hear details that back this up. My guess is some of your teachers like to teach. In a recent fund-raising letter, the president of Reed asked for money so that professors could . . . spend less time in the classroom. The details you did give — about memorizing names, for example — don’t strike me as revealing love of teaching.

    I don’t follow your point #4.

  5. Seth’s blog » Blog Archive » Why One Student Loves Tsinghua University Says:

    [...] After reading my post about Reed College’s horrible treatment of Chris Langan, a friend of mine who is a student at Tsinghua University wrote this: I feel so lucky that we have lots of brilliant scholars who are at the same time good teachers. Many of them do care about undergraduates and give good advice. I don’t know which education system for undergrads [Tsinghua’s or Reed’s] is best, for colleges that do poorly in educating undergrads [like Reed] may produce students who are more independent. But being educated here, I have to say I love Tsinghua and its teachers a lot. [...]

  6. ACOOLFRAGRANTGOLDBALL Says:

    I like this discussion.

    I’m a Reedie as well- hi C. Bailey.

    I get point #4. From my experience, professors,in the sciences only, tended not to be as open to me as a freshman as they have been to me as an upperclassman.

    Not to get the material at hand- I’ve experienced both faces of the Reed College education that have been mentioned: A not student-oriented lecture and course agenda, a side of Reed which I’ll call regard as an institutional orientation- this aspect can also be thought of as a disciplinarian agenda- and an aspect of Reed focused strongly on the process of students raging through the material which is supported through conferences with students and professors.

    It really seems like Reed can function as a do or die kind of process. But let us not forget that this isn’t just at the advantage of the students. There is a common discursive which simply sees the academic mode, lazily (no offense C. Bailey) summarized as do or die, as a beneficial and positive processes: It is to the benefit of the students to face the challenges of Reed education- it is preparatory and advantageous for future serious scholars. Reed supports this claim through it’s common propaganda of giving students the life of the mind, a challenging education, an education that allows smart kids to really go down the rabbit hole of their dreams (that’s what she said). Now when have we found the institutional doors of knowledge and truth to ever not be linked to mechanisms of power? Not to be linked to homeostatic visions of a political unit? While individuals may see the benefit of going through a rigourous intellectual process, while individuals enjoy having fun as intellectuals, there is truly more going on here than can be summed up by Reed College positivism.

    That said, all of my professors at Reed have always taken the time to explain and discuss presented information above and beyond office hours. Got a question about a concept at 6:00 pm? I can shoot a prof and email- I could get an explanation, further readings, etc. So honestly, there does seem validity to C’s point regarding the care the professors put in to teaching material.

  7. ACOOLFRAGRANTGOLDBALL Says:

    (Revision of Previous Post)

    I like this discussion.

    I’m a Reedie as well- hi C. Bailey.

    I get point #4. From my experience, professors,in the sciences only, tended not to be as open to me as a freshman as they have been to me as an upperclassman.

    Not to forget the material at hand- I’ve experienced both faces of the Reed College education that have been mentioned: A not student-oriented lecture and course agenda, a side of Reed which I’ll call regard as an institutional orientation- this aspect can also be thought of as a disciplinarian agenda. Then there is the aspect of Reed focused strongly on the process of students raging through the material. This is supported through conferences with students and professors.

    It really seems like Reed can function as a do or die kind of process. But let us not forget that this isn’t just at the advantage of the students. There is a common discursive which simply sees the academic mode, lazily (no offense C. Bailey) imbedded in the phrase do or die, as a beneficial and positive processes: It is to the benefit of the students to face the challenges of Reed education- it is preparatory and advantageous for serious future scholars. Reed supports this claim through its common propaganda of giving students the life of the mind, a challenging education, an education that allows smart kids to really go down the rabbit hole of their dreams (that’s what she said). Now, when have we found the institutional doors of knowledge and truth to ever not be linked to mechanisms of power? Not to be linked to homeostatic visions of society? While individuals may see the benefit of going through a rigourous intellectual process, while individuals enjoy having fun as intellectuals, there is truly more going on here than can be summed up by Reed College positivism.

    That said, all of my professors at Reed have always taken the time to explain and discuss information presented in class above and beyond class and office hours. Got a question about a concept at 6:00 pm? I can shoot a prof an emai and could expect an explanation, further readings, etc. If not that, I’m free to stop by their office with either lots of welcome of future scheduling. So honestly, there does seem validity to C’s point regarding the care the professors put in to teaching material.