Thursday, August 31, 2006
The professor who became a freshman at her own school
By DAN BARNETT
Northern Arizona University anthropology professor Cathy Small decided to enroll as a freshman there during the 2002-2003 school year. This was to be her sabbatical project--an ethnographic study of college culture at a public university. She turned in her faculty card and parking permit and lived in a coed dorm, attending classes and taking careful notes--on those around her. She became a participant-observer, going to classes, reading the graffiti in the women's restrooms and probing feelings about cheating.
Taking the pseudonym "Rebekah Nathan" and calling the school "AnyU" to protect those she studied, Small compiled her findings into a book. (According to an article in the New York Times, a New York Sun reporter revealed her true identity last year.)
"My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student" is no dry-as-dust study, but rather an insightful and delightful portrait of ordinary student life. My copy is a hardback published by Cornell University Press ($24) but the book is also now in paperback ($14) from Penguin.
Part of Small's story is about her own ethical concerns over how to handle things told to her by students who think she is (just) a fellow student. She decided not to lie; yet she needed to reveal her true purpose only a few times.
Those around her in the dorms were just not that interested in what a 50-plus student was doing at the school. She was a writer, too, she said, and was going to write about student life.
True enough, and that seemed to suffice. Small determined that her book would not contain descriptions of sexual or drinking practices, and her comments on the group discussions in her sexuality class are kept general since they were confidential.
There is nothing lurid here. Instead, Small draws on previous studies and her own reflections to paint a nuanced picture of contemporary student culture.
As a professor, she writes, "It always comes as a surprise to me that students appear clueless about what happened in the last class, that only a minority of them have done the reading assigned, and that almost no undergraduates ever show up for my office hours unless perhaps they are failing."
After her experience as a freshman, she says, "I see now what I didn't see before. In the time between my Tuesday and Thursday classes in introductory anthropology I have taught only one other class, and I have spent at least some time on Wednesday arranging my Thursday class presentation. By contrast, my students have had at least four other classes in between, maybe more, and they have completed many other reading and writing assignments. ..."
They've gone to work, they've played, they've talked. What Small found was that instead of figuring out how to cram in all the needed study (two hours for every class hour is the expectation), students blocked out a limited time for homework and then asked a series of questions to determine whether this or that assignment merited the investment. Will there be a test on the reading assignment or will the student need it to do the homework or answer a question in class? If not, why read it?
There is a certain logic here, though Small's book is no apology for freshman culture, which has surprisingly little to do with academics.
Students want good jobs; their professors want them to be thoughtful citizens. Can the two, Small asks, be reconciled?
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.