Star Trek convention Las Vegas 2009
Charli, Dan and Patrick at ISA 2013?

The academics/educators who write this blog often locate their research and teaching interests in texts from popular culture. Dan has co-edited a book on Harry Potter and IR. Patrick teaches a course on science fiction and social science. Dan offers a course on science fiction and politics. Charli blogs frequently about science fiction and has a working paper on “Security or Human Security? Civil-Military Relations in Battlestar Galactica.” I’ve frequently taught a class on “Global Politics Through Film” and am working on a project about “the comedy of global politics.” I could go on and on, referencing most of the bloggers on the sidebar.

But you already get the idea. Nerdy Duck of Minerva bloggers like to think about popular films, television series, and novels through the lens of international politics. Resistance is futile. We are serious about nonsense, or at least that is likely how critics and skeptics would view these efforts. The other bloggers at the Duck have frequently explained why they do what they do, but I’d like to revisit the issue in light of some recent social science research.

So, here we go again: Given what we know about the ability of higher education to achieve its aims, are we letting our students and colleagues down by focusing on battle stars, death stars, dark materials, the dark side, hunger games, super-heroes, wizard worlds, or zombies?

I have sometimes heard colleagues in the hard sciences snicker at the unusual titles and subjects of courses, papers, and conferences in the social sciences and humanities. Many assume we are all practicing post-modernists, dedicated perhaps to the reification of fantasy. Many colleagues in IR want all of us in the field to spend much more time thinking about the policy relevance of our work. Even sympathetic friends in the social sciences fear that paying parents will be unhappy when they hear about the courses their offspring are taking next term. We had a big debate about this at Louisville when trying to name the new Peace Studies program.

Granted, much of this is familiar ground on this blog and elsewhere. Thus, I’d like to consider the topic in terms of basic student learning outcomes.

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Richard Arum, one of the co-authors of Academically Adrift, the much-discussed recent work demonstrating that colleges are failing a huge portion of their students. Perhaps even worse, the work explains the problems Arum and colleagues identify by finding that too many college classes lack basic rigor. Long-time readers may recall that I previously blogged about Arum’s work with Josipa Roksa back in February 2011.

For those unfamiliar with their study, Arum and Roksa used “measures developed by the Collegiate Learning Association (CLA)” to determine what students are getting out of college. They tested students entering school and then tested them again two and four years later. The results were troubling as more than one-third of respondents ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over four years of college.

Keep that basic point in mind: apparently about 35% of students are wasting tens of thousands of dollars and four years of their lives to gain almost nothing from higher education.

It gets worse.

While speaking in Louisville, Arum revealed that he and his colleagues have continued to follow the student cohort that they started studying in 2005. In other words, they have data from the sixth year after entry into college and now know more about graduation rates, (un)employment, and graduate school entry.

The results are again disturbing, especially for the students who did not significantly improve in college:

Graduates who scored in the bottom quintile of the CLA were three times more likely to be unemployed than those who scored in the top quintile on the CLA (9.6 percent compared to 3.1 percent), twice as likely to be living at home (35 percent compared to 18 percent) and significantly more likely to have amassed credit card debt (51 percent compared to 37 percent).

They also found that their results had political implications, at least for those of us interested in the responsibilities of citizenship, the state of deliberation in the public sphere, etc.

Graduates who exhibited high academic engagement/growth in college were significantly more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students who displayed low academic engagement/growth. Graduates who scored in the highest quintile on the CLA in their senior year were more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students in the bottom quintile.

Obviously, the students entering college in 2005 started exiting college at a particularly bad time, economically.  Indeed, the latest  news about college student unemployment is even worse than Arum and colleagues report. From the Associated Press:

According to the AP’s analysis of government data, about 53.6 percent of Americans who have bachelor’s degrees and are 25 and under are unemployed or hold lower-wage jobs, like waiting tables or serving as office receptionists, that don’t require a degree. That translates to about 1.5 million young people who have not, or not yet, gotten the payoff they expected from a college education.

Who should be blamed for all this misery?

As they do in their book, Arum and colleagues continue to argue for more rigor in the college classroom. The standard employed in the study is not all that difficult to meet — 40 pages of reading per course per week and 20 pages of writing per course. Arum emphasized in Louisville that there is nothing magic about these particular numbers, but they they found that many students had actively sought out courses to avoid anything like this kind of workload. And generally, students had no difficulty finding plenty of courses that do not require them to work very hard. This is true even at good schools as fewer than half of seniors in the sample had completed over 20 pages of writing for a course in the prior semester.


To reiterate, colleges are failing their students because too many instructors fail to make their courses sufficiently rigorous — and many students are flocking to them so that they can complete degrees (and likely earn high grades).

In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa point out that a liberal arts education is highly correlated with rigor and learning. Students pursuing traditional liberal arts majors showed “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time.” Oddly enough, students pursuing degrees in practical and applied fields — business, education, social work, and communications — were more likely to be at the bottom of the rankings.

So, what does this research say about the politics of popular culture? When Duck of Minerva scholars take these texts seriously, they think critically and ask their academic audience and students to do the same. Indeed, in the classroom, they ask students to read a healthy amount of material with the aim of analyzing and applying abstract theoretical ideas to texts that they might enjoy reading or viewing. The students read and write and think. Getting serious in the classroom is a matter of critical and analytical pedagogy, not a matter of studying practical and serious subjects.

According to the analysis of Arum, Roksa, and colleagues, the Duck of Minerva bloggers are apparently on the right track.

Live long and prosper. May the force be with you. Yada yada yada.

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