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My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student

by Cathy Small

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4221042,969 (3.5)18
After more than fifteen years of teaching, Rebekah Nathan, a professor of anthropology at a large state university, realized that she no longer understood the behavior and attitudes of her students. Fewer and fewer participated in class discussion, tackled the assigned reading, or came to discuss problems during office hours. And she realized from conversations with her colleagues that they, too, were perplexed: Why were students today so different and so hard to teach? Were they, in fact, more likely to cheat, ruder, and less motivated? Did they care at all about their education, besides their grades? Nathan decided to put her wealth of experience in overseas ethnographic fieldwork to use closer to home and apply to her own university. Accepted on the strength of her high school transcript, she took a sabbatical and enrolled as a freshman for the academic year. She immersed herself in student life, moving into the dorms and taking on a full course load. She ate in the student cafeteria, joined student clubs, and played regular pick-up games of volleyball and tag football (sports at which the athletic fifty-something-year-old could hold her own). Nathan had resolved that, if asked, she would not lie about her identity; she found that her classmates, if they were curious about why she was attending college at her age, never questioned her about her personal life. Based on her interviews and conversations with fellow classmates, her interactions with professors and with other university employees and offices, and her careful day-to-day observations, My Freshman Year provides a compelling account of college life that should be read by students, parents, professors, university administrators, and anyone else concerned about the state of higher education in America today. Placing her own experiences and those of her classmates into a broader context drawn from national surveys of college life, Nathan finds that today's students face new challenges to which academic institutions have not adapted. At the end of her freshman year, she has an affection and respect for students as a whole that she had previously reserved only for certain individuals. Being a student, she discovers, is hard work. But she also identifies fundamental misperceptions, misunderstandings, and mistakes on both sides of the educational divide that negatively affect the college experience. By focusing on the actual experiences of students, My Freshman Year offers a refreshing alternative to the frequently divisive debates surrounding the political, economic, and cultural significance of higher education--as well as a novel perspective from which to look at the achievements and difficulties confronting America's colleges and universities in the twenty-first century.… (more)

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You're a freshman. You're ready for a brand new adventure, or two, in these next four years in college. You're ready to meet tons of new people, to take some stimulating classes so you can learn as much as you possibly can, and to maybe get into some trouble here and there. That's what college is all about, right? Well, of course it is! So you walk into your room with your big box-o-stuff and drop it off on your bed, which is devoid of any sheets because you forgot to buy that. You'll get it...in a few weeks. Suddenly, you hear footsteps behind you, and your roommate's mom walks in. "Hi, nice to meet you," you say. She looks back at you, smiles a friendly smile reminiscent of the 1970s, and introduces herself as your new roommate.

Wait...what?

[b:My Freshman year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student|56443|My Freshman Year What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student|Rebekah Nathan|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1170458259s/56443.jpg|1071716] is a part anecdote, part research, book about one anthropologist's quest to understand the cultural differences of college students in the new millennium and their baby-booming professors. What she uncovers about their lifestyle is a shocking account of why students act the way they do...at least to people who don't work with students every day. The first thing you have to realize about this book is that it's taken from the perspective of the faculty member who's trying to figure out why students these days (as in 2002) are disengaged with classes. Why don't they participate in class? Why do they not seem to care? What else could they possibly have in their lives? There seems to be a big gap between students and their professors, something that both groups don't bother to try to understand. And that's where Rebekah Nathan (a pseudonym, btw) comes in.

If you are a college student, or even a fresh graduate, then some of the revelations in this book won't come as a surprise. Hopefully. Rebekah is an anthropologist at her university, and decides to go undercover as a freshman for a full year, basically walking in their footsteps. And what's the first question that comes to mind for me? "I sure do feel sorry for that one kid who didn't get accepted to the university because she took their spot." And let's not forget how her roommate must have felt!

"I saw a look of what I considered to be controlled panic cross her face, but she quickly recovered to give me a smile and a greeting. I did feel bad for this poor freshman who drew the old lady for her first roommate, but I found that we could carry on a reasonable conversation about our majors, why we picked AnyU, and the two-day program."

As Rebekah goes through her year as a Freshman, you documents many of her observations, like how students express their identities, particularly through the doors to their rooms. Another observation she makes is how community seems to be ego-driven. To put it bluntly, there is no commitment to organizations. Students tended to join organizations on campus not because they believed in it, but more so because they thought it would look good on their resume. Likewise, the way that people make friends. Making friends tended to be based on who the students first met in their early days as a freshman, and stuck with that group throughout the rest of their years. Then there's also the social networking that people like to do. It should also be noted that this particular work was done in 2002, so you can only imagine the changes in how students network in 2011.

I don't really need to talk about the whole book, but there were a few points that I did want to share my thoughts on. One chapter that I found interesting was on how international students viewed American students. They found Americans to be very individualistic, and I'm sure we can attribute this to our culture and how children are recognized in schools. The international students felt that Americans didn't care about their culture. They wouldn't ask them questions about their home countries, or even express a desire to get to know them past the initial meeting. "Nice to meet you, hope to see you again," isn't meant to be taken literally. Personally, I can relate with these students. After being abroad for a year in South Korea, one of the things I loved most about the country was that the people would just come up to us foreigners and start talking with us. Sometimes they'd hang out with us for the rest of the night, and who knew what kinds of shenanigans we'd get into. But here in America? No...people don't do that. People like to stick with their own groups of people, and the only time you'd ever see someone coming up to another stranger is to hit on them. Or maybe ask where the bathroom is. That's about it. I can understand the international students' plight in that they want more of a connection with the American students.

But in this day and age, we have to be careful about what we say and do around people. Thou must always be politically correct when with thy friends. Thou shalt not say anything indecent to others, unless thy be pegged with insults about thy prejudices. I mean, if I went up to someone and asked what it was like in their home country, wherever that might be, I'd probably get punched in the face. You just don't know who might be an international student here. I guess that this sentiment might differ from university to university and geographic location to another, but it's still tough to be the brave American student. I'm not saying it's impossible. That's what international programs and language tables are for. Nonetheless, I feel for the students. After living in a country where 'community' seems to have a higher standard, I expect more from my community back at home.

And speaking of community, how would you define it? Take a moment. Write it down. Then read below.




"For half the students, community was a somewhat naive amalgam of love, belonging, sharing, and togetherness--all the things we would want community to do for us with none of its obligations. It was, in their words, 'respect; caring, open people' who would be 'sharing together, always there for me';"

Would you say that your definition is similar to the one above, or the complete opposite. Again, the ego-centered sense of community abounds in the college culture.

But let's get back to the reason why Rebekah went undercover in the first place. Some of the reasons students gave are down below:

"I'm not always too interested int he topic, especially in liberal studies courses."
"No one listens to each other anyhow."
"Opinions are personal. I don't feel everyone needs to know my business."
"Sometimes I don't talk because I don't want to appear stupid."

And the list goes on. And there were some responses that I could relate to. There were reasons why I didn't participate in a class, usually because the class was too big and I felt like my voice wouldn't be heard, or I simply was not all that interested in the topic. All students have their own lives that they have to deal with as well. They go to a particular class two or three times a week, and on top of that they are under pressure to fulfill the expectation of family, friends, society, and themselves. And maybe that class is the only time that they have to finally get an extra ten minutes of sleep.

Again, none of this stuff should be new to you if you are a student, or have just graduated, or maybe even currently work with college-aged students. But it's something that we forget as we move away from that lifestyle. Eventually, it becomes something foreign to us. And then that's when we don't understand the younger generation, the age that we used to be. We complain about youngsters and their feelings of entitlement. We blame it on new technologies and even alcohol. But if we just stop to think about this gap and put ourselves in other people's shoes (and not literally like Rebekah did!), then it's actually not all that hard to understand someone else. You just gotta give it some thought.

"As for students, I wish they could more readily see that classroom bureaucracy arises from the recurrent behavior of the thousands of students who have gone before them; that their silence in class can make an enthusiastic professor lose his energy and a new teacher doubt her abilities; or that finding a student cheating is not a triumphant moment...but an upsetting one. Teachers, after all, are human too, but perhaps it will take a student-turned-teacher to credibly tell those tales."

I've been a teacher, and I know the feeling.

I'll leave off with some questions for you. Leave your thoughts in the comments section to let me know what you're thinking:

How often did you see yourself coming to class in college? (percentage-wise)

How often did you do the required reading?

How often did you cheat on tests?

When is it acceptable to cheat?

If you had a roommate like Rebekah, would you have taken the time to get to know her background and what she's doing there? (As in, would you have pressed her for information, or take what she told you as her first answer for granted?)

"So what's the point? If one does forget the details of information from a semester ago, and if the technical material you learn in your major will likely be obsolete in five years, and if you will probably change careers several times in your lifetime anyhow, then what is worth learning?" ( )
  jms001 | Jun 14, 2015 |
3.5 stars

Rebekah Nathan (a pseudonym) was a 50-something year old anthropology professor who decided to do a one-academic-year (2002-2003) study of student life, as a student. She applied to the university she teaches at (what she calls AnyU, for anonymity), and even lived in the dorm, anonymously as a student, to study the student culture. She also did some additional research, as well as interviews to add to her observational info.

I thought this was interesting. I do work at a very small university college (not as a professor, but in the library), so there was some interest there. I also have an undergraduate degree in anthropology. I also kept thinking back to my own experiences as an undergrad (though that was about 10 years earlier). There were some ethical issues with her being a prof and doing a study anonymously that she does discuss in the afterward. She did find some things about student life that wasn't so surprising and some things that were to me (the stats on the number of students who cheat! Whoa!). I found particularly interesting the interviews she did with international students and how they saw American student culture. For anyone interested in learning about student life, this is quite interesting (I think I need a new word...). ( )
  LibraryCin | May 12, 2013 |
The idea is intriguing. Under an assumed name and identity, a professional US anthropologist enrolls as a university freshman to investigate the alien culture of undergraduate life. Though a woman of 50 years, she lives in the dorms, takes classes, eats with fellow students, and participates in student activities. She brings to bear her ethnographic expertise in investigating student practices, using the "observer- participant" approach coupled with interviews and self- reports by the students themselves. On occasion, she follows students around to see what they are doing. On publication of this book, "Rebekah Nathan" was quickly exposed as Cathy Small, and AnyU was shown to be Northern Arizona University. The author was criticised in some circles for misrepresenting herself to her subjects, while others considered this a matter of little concern.

What revelations did this semester - long investigation bring to light? Undergraduate students are not engaged with the philosophic and political issues of the day. They seek out easy classes, study very little, and don't do assigned readings. Students skip lectures if not required to go, and sometimes cheat on assignments. They often work part- time jobs. They aren't interested in intellectual growth. They resist attempts to build false communities, and lack enthusiasm for group activities. They decorate their dorm doors and maximize their limited room space. They communicate with cell phones and instant messaging. They prefer to watch television with friends in their rooms rather than with group in the common space. And so on.

Perhaps someone who has not been in a US university for many years will find this quite surprising; those more aware may wonder why such material warranted a book.

Its findings aside, there are reasons to question the methodology of this study. One is that by the author's own confession, she did not maintain a full load of classes (dropping to only two courses), and by mid- semester, was spending most of her evenings at home. Second, she was not a full participant in the college life -- no frat parties, sorority pledging, team sports, or alcohol - fueled dalliances! In all respects, the author was much more an observer than a participant. Third, the author attempts to bring a quantitative element to the work by doing small surveys, but the sample sizes are small, and the results not analyzed statistically.

Fourth, and most significantly, the author over-generalizes from her own experience. In naming her university AnyU, she presents it as "typical" -- a model of what "undergraduate culture" (in the US) is like in general. However, American colleges and universities vary enormously in size, quality, nature of the student body, type of curriculum, and rigor of grading practicies. To suppose that NAU is "typical" is to suppose there are no significant differences between Swarthmore, Penn State, Brigham Young, Yale, and Texas Baptist College. This general criticism applies broadly to cultural studies of this kind. The anthropologist studies one entity of a given type with the goal of generalizing to the lot (and so, we see studies of "a hospital" from individuals who wouldn't dream of generalizing from one indigenous South American tribe to all of them).

In sum, this particular book describes undergraduate life at Northern Arizona University in 2002 by a professor who braved student dorm life. Its findings are unremarkable, and ten years later, may still apply to NAU and some other academic institutions. ( )
5 vote danielx | Jul 23, 2011 |
I'm not normally a reader of non-fiction texts, but I was really drawn in by the title of this one. I thought to myself, "Wow! I might be able to learn why my students act and think the way they do! Maybe I can get into their heads by reading this!"

Well, though this was educational, I can't say that I was able to actually get into my students' heads by reading this. After all, the professor aimed her study at college freshmen, not high school freshmen. They're completely different... animals.

However, I found this pretty compelling, and I was very glad to have read it. I didn't really understand some of the finer anthropological points; it was a bit over my head. I was a little bored by some of the discussion of methodology and explanation of ethical issues too.

Having taken a research course now, I understand, in retrospect, a lot better what the author was trying to do with her study and why she had to go through a lot of the rigmarole that she did in telling her story.

All in all, this was an enjoyable and educational read.
  Esquiress | Feb 2, 2011 |
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Ten years ago, I would never have expected to be writing a book about college life at AnyU.
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After more than fifteen years of teaching, Rebekah Nathan, a professor of anthropology at a large state university, realized that she no longer understood the behavior and attitudes of her students. Fewer and fewer participated in class discussion, tackled the assigned reading, or came to discuss problems during office hours. And she realized from conversations with her colleagues that they, too, were perplexed: Why were students today so different and so hard to teach? Were they, in fact, more likely to cheat, ruder, and less motivated? Did they care at all about their education, besides their grades? Nathan decided to put her wealth of experience in overseas ethnographic fieldwork to use closer to home and apply to her own university. Accepted on the strength of her high school transcript, she took a sabbatical and enrolled as a freshman for the academic year. She immersed herself in student life, moving into the dorms and taking on a full course load. She ate in the student cafeteria, joined student clubs, and played regular pick-up games of volleyball and tag football (sports at which the athletic fifty-something-year-old could hold her own). Nathan had resolved that, if asked, she would not lie about her identity; she found that her classmates, if they were curious about why she was attending college at her age, never questioned her about her personal life. Based on her interviews and conversations with fellow classmates, her interactions with professors and with other university employees and offices, and her careful day-to-day observations, My Freshman Year provides a compelling account of college life that should be read by students, parents, professors, university administrators, and anyone else concerned about the state of higher education in America today. Placing her own experiences and those of her classmates into a broader context drawn from national surveys of college life, Nathan finds that today's students face new challenges to which academic institutions have not adapted. At the end of her freshman year, she has an affection and respect for students as a whole that she had previously reserved only for certain individuals. Being a student, she discovers, is hard work. But she also identifies fundamental misperceptions, misunderstandings, and mistakes on both sides of the educational divide that negatively affect the college experience. By focusing on the actual experiences of students, My Freshman Year offers a refreshing alternative to the frequently divisive debates surrounding the political, economic, and cultural significance of higher education--as well as a novel perspective from which to look at the achievements and difficulties confronting America's colleges and universities in the twenty-first century.

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