Monday, February 06, 2012


I love this story.  

Apparently, a scholar of student success, Shaun Harper, has decided to turn around the usual methods of studying African-American men in college.  Instead of the typical questions - what obstacles do they face, what prevents success, etc. -- he decided to focus on African-American men who have succeeded in college and to try to determine what worked for them.  In other words, he’s focusing on resilience, rather than failure, as the subject needing explanation.

His subject is African-American men, but his method strikes me as transferable to all sorts of questions.  It’s comparative -- already a considerable advance over much of what it out there -- and it assumes that the elements of success are identifiable and transferable.

His findings thus far are a little disappointing: according to the men who succeeded, most of what they needed happened before they ever got to college.  By the time they got there, the die was largely cast.  To the extent that’s true, of course, colleges can only hope to have marginal and indirect effects.  The exceptions to that are finances -- folks on scholarships reported, unsurprisingly, that the money helped -- and same-race peer mentoring, which suggests that there’s something like critical mass.  Beyond that, existing measures didn’t seem to help much, which I have to admit finding a little dispiriting.  Still, it would be a mistake to take the results as definitive.

The findings are subject to the limits of the method; since they rely on self-reporting, they’re subject to the blind spots inherent in self-reporting.  For example, empirical studies have shown that streamlining developmental sequences help improve student completion rates, but I’d be shocked to hear students cite that.  They took the curriculum that was in effect at the time.  That doesn’t mean the effect wasn’t there; it just means it was invisible from their vantage point.  They didn’t have a point of comparison.

(In my student days, I used to see flyers on walls -- yes, kids, that’s how things were done before facebook -- in which bands would try to recruit new members.  Typically the bands would list their “influences,” in hopes of attracting new members who were compatible with their sound.  It always struck me as a presumptuous term.  How the hell do I know who my influences are?  As a writer, I can list other writers whose work I like and admire, but can I really claim them as influences?  Other than the occasional tip o’the cap, I just write the way I write.  At most, I could claim to write like my Mom talks.  Beyond that, I just don’t know myself that well, and I doubt that most people do.)

All of that said, I really like the idea of studying success to see what can be generalized.  In fact, the method strikes me as transferable to other questions.  (The key is finding the folks who didn’t succeed and getting their candid participation.)  The feedback certainly can’t be definitive, but it can be useful. The catch would be in finding the comparison group, and testing for the right blind spots.

With the right grains of salt, though, this is a wonderful lens to use.  Study what you want more of.  It seems so obvious in retrospect...