My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, by Rebekah Nathan. Cornell, September 2005, $24
While the “Ivory Tower” of higher education in American is often faulted for being out of touch with the country around it, it is an open secret among academics that many are similarly out of touch with their own students. In this fascinating ethnography, “Rebekah Nathan” (a pseudonym for Cathy Small, recently unmasked by the New York Sun) relinquishes her job as a professor of anthropology at “AnyU” (actually NAU = Northern Arizona University) and enrolls as a freshman to become one of those students with whom she has shared a campus, but little else.
Engaging yet scholarly, Nathan applies the techniques of anthropological field research to the modern undergraduate experience. Through formal interviews, informal data collection (such as topics of conversations of passersby, and ethnic diversity in a dining hall) and detached observation, Nathan explores college life with the eye of a social scientist, but from the perspective of a student.
While the anonymity of a pseudonym promises juicy details, there were few to be found. Some insights presented in the manner of an objective anthropologist effectively illustrate prevalent trends (such as attitudes towards cheating), but overall this tone undermines the narrative at the heart of the book. Indeed, Nathan is most compelling when relating her own preconceptions as a professor to her new life as a student. From scheduling constraints, to riding the bus system, to balancing difficult required courses with easier electives, the realities of being a college student surprise Nathan and will be a welcome reminder to many readers in the academy. While the book presents a portrait of today’s student in which classes often take a back seat to socializing, jobs, and extracurricular involvement, Nathan’s experience reminds the rest of us to be compassionate. In their shoes, we would be the same way.