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V.  Relations Within The School

1. Relations Between Students

The extra-curricular activities which are such a prominent part of a conventional college for undergraduates 26) are largely missing in the School of General Studies.

Indeed, while the students ostensibly meet as students on the campus, there is occasionally acute confusion as to whether or not they should assume a student role at all. On campus one can overhear student conversations in which General Studies students appear, not as students, but, as salesmen comparing their jobs, or as mothers comparing notes on their children. The experience of one Delayed Starter, a woman married to a successful Park Avenue lawyer, might be singled out to illustrate the complexities of the student role in an adult college.

My son goes to Princeton. He dates a girl (at Columbia). We all like the girl, and she has been over at the house several times. I was new at General Studies and I sat way back in my Shakespeare class. During the intermission I discovered my son's girlfriend in the class. I wanted to find a hole in the floor and disappear quickly. The girl saw me too, and I looked again and it was her all right. She came up to me and I didn’t know quite what to say. But after a while my embarrassment disappeared and we had a nice talk about Shakespeare.

It would have been possible for this lady to assume a prospective mother-in-law role vis-a-vis this student. Instead she decided to assume a student role and talk about Shakespeare.

At the time of this study, the School of General Studies recognized only one student association, The General Studies Social Council, and this has rather marginal support: 80 per cent of the degree students have never attended any activity sponsored by the Social Council. In response to the question, "Do you wish that more or less spare-time activities were available to you as a General Studies student?" 67 per cent of the degree students answered, "Don’t care" and 16 per cent answered, "Same as now." The remaining 17 per cent wanted more activities. As could be expected, the younger and unmarried students exert somewhat more pressure for extra-curricular activites than do others. The most frequently desired activities include sports, dances, and departmental discussion clubs. The very heterogeneity of the student body is not conducive to flourishing student interaction. Many find it hard to discover like-minded students that might qualify as prospective friends. The extensive commitments of the students to the community beyond the campus also serve as obstacles to contacts between students.

The extra-curricular activities desired by the students might be classified in two major categories. One might be called "diffuse" and "expressive" associations where the accent is on friendship and interaction for its own sake. Such activities would be represented by folk dance associations, fraternities, bridge clubs, et cetera. The other category of activities might be called "specific" and "vocational" that is, those in which the accent is on professional problems. Examples of the latter might be lectures by visiting scholars or a departmental discussion forum such as a Psychology Club. It appears that unemployed and single students prefer the more diffuse and expressive activities, while employed and married students prefer the more instrumental activities. The diffuse and expressive associations would give the students a circle of friends, a primary group that they could turn to particularly in time of academic stress. The School is interested in such a narrow segment of an individual‘s talents that when it has to give a low grade for a show of these talents, the emotional balance of the student often cannot but be affected. This emotional balance is best preserved if the student can turn to friends who appreciate his other talents. Those who are married, or who have jobs, or who have an established group of friends outside the School already have such safety valves in other groups, and are thus in less need of diffuse and expressive affiliations on campus. It is, therefore, not surprising that the proportion of single and unemployed students preferring expressive activities is almost twice as high as the proportion preferring specific vocational activities.

2. Relations Between Students and Teachers

Students meet their teachers at odd hours in the School of General Studies. While some very close relations between students and teachers do occur, most of the contacts between them occur in class and remain superficial.

An immediate reaction of many teachers is: how mature the students are! Their age and maturity makes for instances of closeness and congeniality with the teaching staff. However, the reaction of many students are: how young our teacher is! In fact, on the first day of class there is often accute anxiety as to who the teacher is. From physical appearance alone it is sometimes difficult to know the professor from the student.

The School of General Studies has made a deliberate adjustment to an adult student body with its decision to avoid any minimum course-load requirement. A conventional college has a "captive" student body, that is, it usually requires that students attend a minimum of twelve class-room hours a week. In the School of General Studies, it is possible for students to attend school for only two or three hours a week if they so desire. The School facilitates this by offering many courses at night. And indeed the majority of students in the School of General Studies utilize the privilege of attending school part-time as shown by Table 7.


Course Load

Degree Students

Less than 5 Points
5-7 points (two courses)
8-10 points (three courses)
11-13 points (four courses)
14-16 points (five courses)
17-19 points (six courses)
20 or more points




Those who take ten points or less (55 per cent) are predominantly evening students.

In most instances, it is employment that prevents these students from spending more time in class. The proportion of students employed varies with sex and age.





22 or less
30 or more



We find an insignificant increase in employment with increasing age of women, but a very marked increase for men. This reflects the very strong norm in our society that requires that a grown-up man should be a bread-winner. As one male student, 43 years old, a Delayed Starter, said in an interview:

I have a full-time job, eight hours a day, five days a week except Thursday, when I leave early to attend a class. I am a glass cutter, and my job hinders my work in G.S. in that I have less time to study than if I didn’t put in a full day’s work, but I wouldn’t feel right if I weren’t working at my age. I am too old to be just studying.

This sentiment – never repeated among the older women – is a first hint of the genuine problem faced by the delayed students in reconciling the demands of college with the expectations of the positions they hold as adult members of the society. It also indicates that the liberal attendance allowance of the School of General Studies is a necessary consequence of the liberal age allowance. If part-time attendance were prohibited, very few older males would be in a position to enroll. The male student at a conventional college who is a minor is not expected to be a bread-winner, and can, therefore more easily meet full-time attendance requirements.

A second way in which the School has adjusted to the needs of students with full-time employment is found in the scheduling of the days that a class is to meet. A conventional college is likely to schedule a course meeting three hours per week on three separate days. Adult students find this inconvenient: only 13 per cent of the degree students prefer a three-point course to meet three days a week, while 64 per cent prefer twice a week. The scheduling of courses with longer hours but fewer meetings makes it possible for those who take a few courses to attend school only once or twice a week.

In all, the scheduling is a difficult problem in the School of General Studies. One departmental representative describes the situation in a memorandum to his department:

If a course continues to "draw badly," then it is likely that it will be dropped. Furthermore, if in a given semester the registration in a course is low, it may be dropped. There is no official rule on this point, but an informal lower limit is thought by some people to be about ten students... Conversations with one’s administrative and teaching colleagues in General Studies are very likely to take a turn toward discussing this market problem. I hardly need note that this is a consideration which any administrator must be aware of; however, our situation in General Studies is probably accentuated in this regard. This is particularly the case at the time of registration, when the Departmental Representative may have to juggle schedules of full-time people frantically if courses must be dropped; or he may have to resort to an advertising plea in many courses in order to build up a precariously low class.

Expediency rather than educational philosophy often determines what action is taken in these dilemmas.

Even when there is no doubt about the fact that a course should be offered, the composition of the student body may force a modification in what is taught. A typical example of this was furnished in a meeting of five instructors of the various sections of an introductory sociology course. One objective of the meeting was to arrive at decisions as to the texts and assignments to be used in the course. Since, at that time, the lack of a satisfactory elementary textbook in sociology was obvious, the committee proceeded to piece assignments together from a score of scattered sources. At this point, however, the instructor of an evening session protested: "I couldn’t possibly ask my night students to do all this library work. They are employed during the day and at night they are in class. When could they sit and read all this in the library?" A compromise had to be reached in the interest of the evening students. A "reader" of articles, which students could buy and use in any place, replaced some of the library assignments.

It is also important to note that the varying backgrounds of the students make for an even greater heterogeneity of student interest. Thus, the School of General Studies, as a response to this heterogeneity, offers a much more varied list of courses than most conventional colleges. The 1955-56 catalogue for General Studies lists 1,428 courses as compared to 696 courses in the Columbia College catalogue. In a situation in which the School can find both teachers and students for a course in Armenian, or other equally exotic subjects, should such a course be given? A clear education policy is needed in this matter, but it would be an exaggeration to say that it exists.

Again the heterogeneity of the student body causes students to evaluate their courses and teachers in less consistent ways than in other schools. A perceptive instructor reports:

My students are heterogeneous. It doesn’t surprise me any more that some are older than I, but it does still surprise me how heterogeneous their attitudes are. Some think my course will be very difficult; others think it will be a snap course. There is no agreement. In the college I went to, we had all the courses pretty much rated and there was much more consensus about what was difficult and what was easy.

The different backgrounds of the students mean that they bring differing standards to bear on the class-room activities. When asked "How satisfactory have you found the teaching methods used in the School of General Studies?" 89 per cent responded, "very satisfactory," or "fairly satisfactory". This satisfaction is strongest among the Delayed Transfers (91 per cent) and least strong among the Direct Transfers (83 per cent), and generally stronger among women than men. And, the attitudes of the students tend to vary according to what type of teacher they have in mind. Delayed students offer the largest number of spontaneous complaints about the teachers who are graduate students, while Direct Starters and Direct Transfers complain most about Commercial Practitioners and Extra-Course Teachers. It was beyond the scope of this study to make a complete inventory of the ways in which each type of student tends to view each type of teacher and vice versa; however, some attitudes toward the teachers whom we called Commercial Practitioners have certain important functions for the students who plan to enter the fields of these teachers. A student who has had one academic course in social research taught by this author and later one additional course in the same subject matter taught by a Commercial Practitioner reports back:

There is a difference between your course and that of Dr. C. I learned a lot of principles of research from you, but Dr. C. really told us what the world of market research is like. When I took your course, I knew I wanted to go into market research, but I had really never met a market researcher. In this course we had one as an instructor, and now I know more what my future career will be like.

The Commercial Practitioners apparently serve as models to some students for their career aims and aspirations.

If we turn the tables and ask how the teachers evaluate the students, we can obtain some leads from the grades they give students. An examination of a large number of grade sheets leaves two dominant impressions. First, there are great variations in grade levels among the teachers. We find teachers who gave the grade A and A- to over 50 per cent of their students and teachers who gave A or A- to less than 5 per cent of their students. Apparently, the teachers have not talked enough with each other to co-ordinate their grading standard, an assumption that is reasonable to make in light of the great fragmentation of the teaching staff.

Second, one is left with the impression that the average grade is high. The average grade reported by degree students is B. The Direct Starters maintain on the average a B-; the Delayed Starters and Direct Transfers make a B average; and the Delayed Transfers tend to do better than the others, maintaining a low B+ average. This statistic, as well as reports from several informants, indicates that the grade level of the degree students in the School of General Studies is very high.

The high grade level seems directly related to the fact that many students need very high grades to stay in the School. Grading is a tangible and obvious device with which any school motivates its students. No matter how strongly motivated the students were to enroll, they also need to be motivated to stay in the School. Grades are not only an index of achievement; they also represent a reward, a valuation of a person that deeply affects his attitude toward himself and his self-respect. It is naturally hard to demonstrate that students who get below average grades are less motivated to continue with their college education, since we have interviewed only those who continue. However, we asked the students whether they had been away for a semester or longer since they first enrolled. Among those who have been at the college for six semesters or longer, we find that 48 per cent of the C-average students have dropped out for a semester or more, while among the students with an A or B average only 26 per cent had left for a semester or more and later re-enrolled. The tendency to leave is understandable, particularly for adult students who experience pulls from their other roles in the society and often could receive considerable gratifications from these roles. Occasionally one can establish good enough rapport with a student to have him volunteer remarks such as "If I don’t get decent grades, I might as well go back to business," "I feel I should at least have a B average; otherwise I might as well spend more of my time with my family".

Thus the School of General Studies finds itself forced to give higher (or easier) grades in order to compete with gratifications present in other adult roles. Of course, this is not a conscious policy, but an unintended consequence of the attendance of older students with complex commitments outside the School. Since it is not a conscious policy it remains to be explained how these pressures from students are translated into grading practices.

Grading is only one small part of a college teacher’s responsibilities. He is a specialist who knows his field and shares his knowledge with his students. He also conveys an attitude and enthusiasm to his classes, or he conveys an approach that presumably leaves an impact long after his specific contribution of information may be forgotten. He is also an expert in the many difficult arts of interpersonal relations, and so on. All these tasks and many more enter the teaching role. Unfortunately, there are very few ways in which his superiors can evaluate a performance in all these tasks. Department heads charged with the responsibility of making such evaluations cannot obtain adequate performance ratings for all the varied tasks an instructor is expected to perform. On only two scores does the administration have a visible basis for evaluating a teacher; it has its list of publications as an index of scholarship, and it has the enrollment figures for his classes as an index of his ability to attract students.

The enrollment statistics are not intended to be a basis for evaluation of teachers: they are collected primarily for purposes of curriculum and budget planning. And although everyone knows that ability to attract students and keep students is only one minor part of a good teacher’s job, the enrollment figures nevertheless become a source of concern for instructors. 27)  Since their performance in this case is visible, the teachers exaggerate their conformity to the requirement that they attract and keep students. Something of this is true of all colleges and is not at all unique with the School of General Studies. However, the structure of the School tends to amplify this factor. The School has a large number of part-time teachers. The superiors do not know many of these marginal teachers very well, and are forced to give heavy emphasis to the visible evidence of enrollment figures. The School also has less of a "captive" student population: students are free to take fewer courses and even leave school for a semester or longer. Their main power – perhaps their only power – over the instructor lies in the act of not signing up for his next course. We have already seen how the students need greater than average rewards to stay enrolled. In response to these more or less subtle pressures, the instructors, anxious to maintain a good rating with their superiors, tend to offer higher grades. It is not anybody’s design. It is a consequence of the necessity for competing with the rewards adult students enjoy in other pursuits and of the practice of having little but enrollment information as a basis of judgment of a teacher performance.

3. Relations Between Teachers

There is a great deal of fragmentation which marks the relations between teachers in the School of General Studies. Of course, there are many professors working in close collaboration with each other, many who enjoy the untold benefits of the give and take of an intellectual discussion, many who consult with each other on common problems of research and teaching. But the teacher who noted "After three years here, I have still to meet some of the people who teach in my department, " is also rather typical.

The greatest obstacles to contacts between colleagues lies in the simple fact that three-fourths of the teachers are employed part-time and have their major commitments elsewhere. This situation is aggravated by the fact that only a small proportion of the teachers have office space in the General Studies Building, and many of those who nominally have offices there, in reality only have one drawer in a desk shared by half a dozen or more persons. They limit their stay there to the hour they have to see students, and are not likely to develop contacts with colleagues in neighboring offices. Some teachers have their offices in other buildings, usually where their Departmental Office is located, and finally a very large group of part-time teachers have no office space at all on campus. While some departmental representatives call regular meetings of their staffs, a number do not do so. In incidental and unsystematic ways, social gathering in the homes of the staff may off-set this, but there are no guarantees that a teacher will be integrated into his department.

Thus the obstacles to inter-disciplinary contacts are particularly great. Few natural avenues for contacts exist and the inadequacies in office space already noted contribute to the problem. Columbia University has the draw-backs to inter-disciplinary contacts common to any metropolitan campus. Unlike some European metropolitan universities, it is not surrounded by a string of cafes that might facilitate teacher and student contacts. The School of General Studies does have a tea lounge that is frequented by the afternoon students and occasional teachers but this is closed in the evening and thus not available to evening students and teachers.

While there are some opportunities to meet socially with members of one’s own Department, there are very few opportunities to meet General Studies colleagues from different departments. Finally, there are no large, inter-departmental courses in the School of General Studies that would bring colleagues from different fields together. The existence of a small faculty lounge, an annual faculty tea, and quarterly faculty meetings lasting less than two hours cannot counteract this fragmentation of the teaching staff in the School of General Studies.

By contrast the situation in Columbia College is on every score more conducive to contact across departmental lines. As a result the typical teacher in Columbia College seems to take his cues from his colleagues there; in a real sense there is a College style of intellectual life fed on an active inter-disciplinary debate. But the typical teacher in the School of General Studies is too isolated from his colleagues to take his main cues from them. His professional attention and interest is focused and stimulated by other contacts. Often he seems to take his cues from colleagues in the Graduate School:.

It is true that I have tenure in General Studies, and I expect to stay here a few years. I am working on a book on ... and when it is finished I expect to move to the Graduate Faculty. The Graduate Department has treated me very well. They invite me as a courtesy member to their meetings, and I am on as many doctoral examinations as I care to be.

To some extent this orientation toward the Graduate Faculties is common in all undergraduate divisions at Columbia University. However, there can be little doubt that the School of General Studies is less of a "reference group" for its teachers than is Columbia College or Barnard College for the teachers there.

4. Some Administrative Problems

It is, of course, the responsibility of the administration to coordinate the various units of the School. The administrators have a difficult task in keeping the fragmented teachers and students informed, even about the rules and practices of the School. During the month of May, 1956, an advisor to students kept a record of all problems which students brought to him. It appeared that one out of twelve problems stemmed, totally or in part, from misinformation emanating from the teachers. (For example, several students had been sent to the Advisor's office by instructors for permission to receive attendance credits rather than grade credits for their course; yet this is officially a matter solely between the instructor and student.) About the only effective sources of information available to most of the staff are the annual bulletin of courses and a booklet that the Dean mails every year to each instructor. However, the present structure of the teaching staff is conducive to a low level of information about the School and a lack of consensus as to its educational philosophy.

The administration makes other efforts to meliorate the problems produced by the fragmented nature of its student body and staff. Mediating between the administrative and the teaching staffs are three Standing Committees, the most important of which is the Committee on Instruction, it consists of five administrators and six professors. This committee is a major center for discussion of the educational policy of the School. Its proposals are almost invariably passed by the Faculty. A faculty member sums up his impression of the power structure in these words: "This school is run by the Dean with the help of a handful of faculty members whom he likes and respects." It should be made perfectly clear that this is not due to any conspiracy on the part of the administrators to deprive the teachers of power; it is apparently independent of the personalities involved. Actually it is caused simply by the structural characteristics of the School: departmental autonomy, the high proportion of part-time instructors, and the inadequate organizational devices for promoting discussion among the teaching staff.

When we turn from inter-departmental relations to the relations between various colleges and schools of the University, we find that both students and teachers in the School of General Studies sometimes feel certain difficulties. A number of General Studies students have a somewhat strained relationship with the students in Columbia College and Barnard College. There is evidence that many of the latter would not accept a General Studies student as an equal. In the Lion's Den, a student hangout on the campus, there have been repeated efforts to bar so-called "undesirables," a category that occasionally has been taken to include General Studies students. Also, teachers have difficulties in commanding the respect in treatment accorded to colleagues in other divisions of Columbia University. In an extreme incident the Chairman of a Department tried to disown the School of General Studies by refusing a teacher who was a member of his Department to use departmental stationary.

The most effective units of opinion formation among teachers are departments, not faculties. They meet often as formal groups and constantly in informal subgroups. For example, at a faculty club restaurant anyone who has learned to identify his neighbors can tell that professors from the same department are more likely to share a table than professors from different departments in the same faculty. Thus, much more frequently it makes sense to speak about departmental opinion than to speak about faculty opinion. When a new division of the University such as the School of General Studies is established, cutting across departmental lines, it is, therefore, no surprise that different departments take different views of, and adopt different policies vis-à-vis the new division. These departmental differences are reflected in the varying of competence of the teachers in the School of General Studios. For example, in the classes in Botany, Chemistry, Economics, and Physics, three-quarters or more of the teachers hold Ph.D. degrees. In the classes in English, French and Mathematics less than one-quarter of the teachers have doctorates. The proportion of classes taught by persons with professorial rank shows even more startling variations: for example, in Botany 100 percent; Physics 95 per cent; Psychology 48 per cent; Chemistry 44 per cent; Spanish 37 per cent; Government 21 per cent; German 11 per cent; and in Mathematics 7 per cent. These variations indicate the departmental differences in personnel policy and at the same time the relative inability of the School of General Studies to enforce a uniform personnel policy. Other variations soon become obvious to the observer. For example, some departments assign prominent members as Departmental Representatives in the School of General Studies, others give the job to their lowest ranking member. Some departments grant their Representatives virtual autonomy to hire and fire personnel and to decide upon which courses are to be offered. Other departments keep a close eye on what courses are offered and use the personnel needs of the General Studies enclave of their department as opportunities for patronage to graduate students. One sometimes marvels that everything runs as well as it actually does.


26) Haveman and West (op. cit. p. 227) report that among recent college graduates 42% belonged to three or more campus associations, 28% to two, 23% to one, and only 7% did not join any association at all.

27) Ct. Peter M. Blau, The Dynamics of Bureaucracy, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1955, ch. 3.

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