My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan (nom de plume for Cathy Small of Northern Arizona University), describes a fascinating project in which this anthropology professor spent her year long sabbatical enrolled as a freshman in her own university. Her goal was to study the culture of the students as a separate population using traditional anthropological techniques. Think Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa”, except with pizza, beer, and midterms added.
I came upon this book just as my daughter had finished college. I must admit that while she was at UC Santa Cruz, I wondered if she was getting as much out of the experience as I thought she could (or should, in my more judgmental moments). I hoped this book would give me a student eye view of the current university experience. I wasn’t disappointed.
The writing is a bit dry at times, written as a scientist studying life among a native tribe. It’s also full of wonderful, insightful moments that really made a lasting impression on me. Like when she finds out how hard it is to get around campus without a car and that very special faculty parking sticker. Like when she’s called on the carpet for drinking a beer in the dorm’s common room. Like when she assimilates the student-eye-view of surviving in class and her classmate reminds her of what true learning is.
This last was a good story. She was studying with a partner from her French class and he suggested they work on the past imperfect tense. She responded with that time-honored phrase, “She said that wouldn’t be on the test.” He answered, “Don’t you want to learn French better. Come on…” That brought her up short because her answer was the “normal” one she’d observed from most of her classmates.
One thing the author stresses is the complexity of life for students at AnyU (her name for her university). These kids are taking 5 classes per semester and most are working a job as well. Part time, to be sure, but definitely enough hours to require some attention. And there are on-campus organizations and sports vying for time as well. Seeing how these students learned to manage their time, and their professors, she came to a new appreciation of what her students were going through.
She also had a long section about foreign students studying at AnyU. She conducted many interviews with these kids to get their take on American college life. They offer valuable insights comparing their studies in America with what they experienced at home. In general they found the work at AnyU to be much easier than in their native countries. And they had various reactions to the social scene at the dorms and in America generally. It’s like each of them was living an anthropological fieldtrip in order to survive in the US. My one concern was that this isn’t a realistic sample of all students from their native countries. These students probably represent the most successful and diligent representatives. I wonder if the average student from these countries would find our colleges so easy.
She ends with a chapter on the ethics of what she’s done. What were the implications for a professor at AnyU turning around and mingling with the students as one of them. She kept her status under wraps most of the time. But she decided to answer questions honestly if they were posed. And in her writing she completely honors the privacy of the students she observed and interviewed. She had to walk a fine line and I think she did it well.
So reading this book did help me understand my daughter better. I appreciate that very much. And I’m tempted to buy copies for my many friends whose kids are just now enrolling at universities around the country.
(Goodness, I just looked at my last few posts and I do write a lot of book reviews. I'm going to have to branch out a bit in the future!)