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Book Review: “The First Year Out” by Tim Clydesdale

Posted by on Tuesday, January 26, 2010 in News.

In researching his book The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School (University of Chicago Press, 2007), Tim Clydesdale, a sociologist at the College of New Jersey, conducted in-depth interviews with 75 teenagers, many of whom he interviewed before and after their first year out of high school.  The interviewees were diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, religious background, and socioeconomic class, and they came from six states in the Northeast as well as Oregon.  In the book, Clydesdale describes how these teens navigated relationships, managed gratifications, approached work, spent money, and experienced college.  Clydesdale shares the stories of several of his interview subjects (de-identified), and these stories make concrete the broader conclusions Clydesdale draws from his research.

Perhaps most relevant to college and university educators are Clydesdale’s conclusions regarding the first-year student experience:

During their first year out, American teens become cognitively sharper but intellectually immune.  The overwhelming majority of American teens are practical credentialists.  They understand that diplomas are necessary for better jobs and that for the highest status jobs, grades are important, too.  Thus, they become adept at playing the game of college, putting in minimal effort to obtain the desired grade.

Clydesdale argues that while first-year students gain improved cognitive and communication skills in college, they retain very little of the content to which they are exposed in their first year.  Furthermore, Clydesdale asserts that “intellectual curiosity is not a value that [they] esteem.”  He notes that this disinterest in intentional learning is not unique to first-year students; American adults are rarely intellectually curious.  Thus American teens’ experiences with learning reflect those of mainstream American society.

First-year students tend to have narrow perspectives on political, economic, and social issues, according to Clydesdale.  That is to say, their perspectives on such issues rarely broaden during their first year out.  Instead, they put their core identities-their perspectives on family, faith, and community-in “identity lockboxes” their first year out.  Instead of embracing or even exploring broader perspectives, they focus on what Clydesdale calls “daily life management,” learning to navigate relationship, manage gratifications, balance work and school and play, and generally learn to take care of themselves more independently.  Clydesdale writes, “Most American teens… actively resist efforts to examine their self-understandings through classes or to engage their humanity through institutional efforts such as public lectures, the arts, or social activism.”

In his final chapter, Clydesdale provides recommendations for educators based on his research.  He suggests that educators take an “end-user’s perspective” to their work, helping students to identify their interests and then designing learning experiences that connect those interests to existing bodies of knowledge, improve students’ cognitive and communication skills, and provide students with applied problem-solving experience that draws on that knowledge and those skills.  He suggests that educators should identify the knowledge and skills that college graduates retain and use and “work backward” to design a “student-centered curriculum” that fosters that knowledge and those skills.

Clydesdale asserts that educators who attempt to broaden their first-year students’ perspectives are wasting their time because students are too focused on daily life management to open their identity lockboxes.  He suggests that such perspective work might occur during college students’ sophomore and junior years, when they are not experiencing significant transitions in life, but he leaves that as an open question.

The qualitative research that Tim Clydesdale summarizes in The First Year Out is persuasive, and it provides insights into the first-year experience that are sometimes lacking in survey data.  Most of the student stories he shares in the book come from his interviews with New Jersey students, and there is some geographical bias in his narrative.  However, his findings are based on interviews with students across the county and thus are worth consideration by all educators.  His recommendations speak directly to the first-year curriculum and support the use of seminar classes focused on writing, speaking, and analytical skills.

Clydesdale’s warning that educators who seek to broaden their first-year students’ perspectives are wasting their time is a sobering one.  He notes that some students (including, perhaps surprisingly, many of those at religious colleges) do broaden their perspectives and are intellectually curious, so it is certainly possible for first-year students to have transformative experiences.  However, he also notes that many of those who do end up entering the professoriate.  The First Year Out makes a strong case that we educators should not assume our students are like us, and that we should seek to better understand our students so that we can better prepare them to more meaningfully engage with the world.

Review by Derek Bruff, CFT Assistant Director.  For more on Tim Clydesdale’s work, visit his home page.  Also, read his January 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “Wake Up and Smell the New Epistemology.”  For more on teaching first-year students, join our April 1, 2010, conversation on teaching, “Cognitive Challenges of the First Year,” featuring panelists Doug Christiansen (Admissions), Susan Kevra (French), and Adam List (Chemistry).


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