“Back-When-I-Was-in-School” Remembrance.

I started UCLA in 1977, having won admission with only a 3.1 GPA (but with decent SAT scores). When I got there my brother and I moved into Sproul Hall dormitory just above the track stadium. I came to campus thinking, “Yeah! Party time.”

There was certainly a fair number of loud ones every Friday and Saturday throughout De Neve Drive and along Fraternity Row, plus a few mid-week open doors with beer flowing inside. But something else, too. About half the guys I met spent three or four hours a night in University Research Library (URL—we called it “Urinal”). They rose around 8 or 9am, grabbed a quick breakfast in the dorm cafeteria, speeded down the hill to classes before and after lunch (it was the quarter system, with classes meeting four hours a week), then spent the late afternoon shooting hoops or throwing a football, then dinner at 6, then a trip to the library by 7. If you arrived after 8, you couldn’t find a seat. Each night, sitting in a carrel, I heard the tardy ones sidle by searching for spots and wandering floor to floor.

The other half of the guys I met had other plans. They weren’t much interested in college, or they dealt drugs, or they played sports all day, or they were just plain screw-ups. The diligent ones recognized them as such, and even though we enjoyed them there was no cachet of “cool” given to them. (Freshman and sophomore year I drifted perilously toward the latter group now and then.) Those who studied hard didn’t consider themselves superior, nor did they fit the nerd mold. They played high school football and drank Henry Weinhard. But they studied hard without groaning or crowing, taking their 20 or so hours a week as customary.

That’s why a remark at this story in the Boston Globe on college homework is so annoying. The Globe highlights research appearing on the average number of hours per week that college students log doing homework. The latest study puts the figure at 14 hours per week on average. That figure tallies with similar surveys such as National Survey of Student Engagement and a large University of California study from two years ago. “In survey after survey since 2000, college and high school students are alarmingly candid that they are simply not studying very much at all,” the story notes.

According to the recent study (by Philip Babcock, an economist at UCSB, and Mindy Marks, an economist at UC-Riverside), in 1961, students averaged 24.4 hours per week, and by 1981 it had already fallen to 16.8 hours.

And yet, “Some question whether college students ever could have studied 24 hours a week —roughly three and a half hours a night.” That’s the annoying remark. It isn’t given any attribution in the Globe story, and one wonders who the “some” are. In any case, though, the notion that 24 hours a week of study time is unimaginable . . . well, what to say? It amounts to 3.5 hours per night. C’mon, that’s not all that much. If you got to URL at 7, you read and wrote till 8:45, then took a half hour break before going back to the library for another hour and three-quarters. Not a big deal. That left an hour for a couple of beers at home. On Saturdays you could get your hours in right after lunch and leave the night open.

I worked part-time all through college and by my third year joined the 20-hours-of-homework group (I took five years and some summer school to graduate). I got bored, tired, distracted, and jumpy in my library station, but never thought, “This is just too much homework—it’s not realistic.”

If the people who think the 24-hour estimate is a fantasy are professors, that might explain the opinion. When it comes to the reasons for declining hours, Babcock and Marks have one unpleasant surmise: “What might be causing it, they suggest, is the growing power of students and professors’ unwillingness to challenge them.” Professors have downgraded their authority, dropping the “dynamic where a professor sets standards and students try to meet them.” Instead, Babock and Marks believe, we have a situation in which “both sides hope to do as little as possible.”

This gets us to a rational explanation. The more homework students do, the more material professors have to grade. Or, the more they assign, the more they have to penalize students who don’t complete it. High workloads also lower student evaluation scores, especially when one professor requires it and colleagues in the department don’t join in.

What’s the incentive for a professor to demand an hour of work per night for his or her course alone? Students don’t like it and they complain. They send emails asking for adjustments, and when they don’t follow the complaints spread. The chair of the department doesn’t want to deal with complaints and neither does the dean. Parents shelling out bundles for tuition don’t want their children to come home with “C” grades.

Most of all, professors at institutions with high research and/or service demands can only regard rigorous teaching as a danger. They fill out annual reports each year, but neither amount of homework time nor weekly office hours nor out-of-class student engagement meetings are recorded there. They don’t increase their salary and they don’t get promoted and they don’t garner professional prestige by forcing students to bring rough drafts to the office for review/discussion.

The only thing that pushes back against these incentives is professional virtue. Teachers do it because it’s the right thing to do. But the rest of the system conspires against virtue, and its near-complete defeat is nicely illustrated by the “nobody did 24 hours of homework” comment. Instead of being a standard professors should sustain, 20+ workloads now appear to many an unreal, and perhaps unjust or sadistic, expectation. Let it go, let it go . . .


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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