My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student / Edition 1

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Nathan's research brought forth three defining aspects of student life—choice, individualism, and materialism—and found that university efforts to build community among the freshmen were largely unsuccessful. In addition, the author learned why many students find cheating an acceptable response to managing tight schedules and gained insights into the nature of the informal conversations students have about their professors and courses. In the end, she offers a good understanding of the current generation of college students and the broader culture from which they have emerged."—Library Journal, August 2005

"Nathan said she wishes other professors would at least be more curious about the people they're teaching. . . . Understanding the enormous gap between student and faculty values has prompted Nathan to be more inventive about the way she presents things in class. 'I would have preferred less noise, drama, throwing up, but it made me a better professor,' she says. 'If kids have to sleep through lectures, I understand. At this point, it'd be pretty hard for me to feel alienated."—Rachel Aviv, 'Undercover Mother,' The Village Voice, August 2, 2005

"Professors often complain about their students, and Rebekah Nathan used to grumble with the best of them. During lunches with colleagues, the anthropology professor would lament the intellectual malaise she saw among her pupils: how they refused to participate in class discussions, rarely read assigned texts, and seldom came to her during office hours. . . . So the cultural anthropologist decided to step outside the classroom and do some fieldwork. In the fall of 2002 Ms. Nathan enrolled as a full-time undergraduate student at the large public university where she teaches. . . . Ms. Nathan learned that being a student in the 21st century is tougher than she had imagined. After two semesters of scrambling from class to class, juggling assignments, and cramming for examinations, she had more compassion for time-crunched students, many of whom worked part-time jobs to help pay for their education."—'Getting Schooled in Student Life,' The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 29, 2005

"For years, anthropologist Rebekah Nathan studied life in a remote Third World village between stints of teaching at a big state university. But after years as a professor, she felt disconnected from her students. Why did so few do the assigned readings' Who told them it was OK to eat in class' To answer these questions, Nathan, who's in her 50s, enrolled as a freshman, moved into a dormitory and used her anthropology skills to study the tribal rituals of undergrads. . . . The main lesson: time-management skills are key. She saw how profs' office hours often conflicted with her other classes. Deciding which reading assignments to skip was a necessary survival tactic. "I didn't really remember what it took to do this," says Nathan, who pulled mostly B's."—Newsweek, August 22, 2005

"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. . . . While the books 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."—Cedar Riener, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2006

"This volume is a page-turner from beginning to end. Rebekah Nathan reveals how little intellectual life matters in college and explores the lives of students who are enveloped by notions of individualism, choice, and materialism. Traversing topics as far ranging as friendship, social life, engagement in university classrooms, dorm life, and the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities as well as those of an increasingly growing number of international students, Nathan uses her well-honed anthropological skills to study the 'university as village.' Faculty, students, and parents alike will find this volume illuminating as we get 'up close and personal' with those undergraduates who attend our large state institutions."—Lois Weis, author of Class Reunion: The Remaking of the American White Working Class

"This is an outstanding book, one of the most important books I've read in this century, and I know it will transform and inspire my teaching and writing. Rebekah Nathan's project—to go undercover as a college student, living in a dorm—is bold and intriguing, especially for a woman anthropologist in her fifties. She comes back with a fascinating story of students who are frazzled but astute at working the system in a world that's invisible to most university faculty. This memoir reveals secrets and solves many a mystery, such as—Why do so many students ignore reading assignments? Why are Friday classes usually disasters? What makes students reluctant to take part in class discussion? Why don't most college students discuss ideas outside of class? And how are international students surprised and sometimes horrified by the behavior of American undergraduates? This book is notable for its ethical treatment of confidential subjects, such as drunkenness and cheating. Nathan is a fine storyteller, and her descriptions of Student Development people's efforts to 'create community' in the university are both funny and sad. My Freshman Year is funny, sad, true, eye-opening, and sometimes mind-boggling. If I knew the author, I would congratulate her with great warmth and enthusiasm."—Emily Toth, Louisiana State University, author,"Ms. Mentor" column and ten books including Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia, Unveiling Kate Chopin, and Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious

"My Freshman Year is unpretentious and yet full of insights and sharp observations. It is novel, spare, and speaks (delightfully) to many interests. Rebekah Nathan's careful fieldwork and savvy topical selection provide a moving and important take on American college life."—John Van Maanen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"The first thing to say about this book is that there are very few books like it. The author's account of living in the dorm and taking classes on a campus where she had worked as a professor for many years is fascinating. From her experience enrolled as a freshman and through her anthropological lens, we learn how different the world of students is from what professors imagine it to be. I think anyone with an interest in undergraduate life—whether in academe or not—will want to read it and will enjoy it."—Margaret Eisenhart, University Distinguished Professor and Charles Chair of Education, University of Colorado at Boulder

Library Journal
In her mid-fifties, the author (Rebekah Nathan is a pseudonym) registered as a freshman and moved into a dorm, concealing her identity as an anthropology professor on leave from the very same state university (identified as "Any U"). Her intent: to use her expertise in ethnographic fieldwork to better understand today's undergraduates. Only a few administrators were in on her project. Nathan undertook both participant-observer research and formal data collection via interviews. She always identified herself as a researcher and found it remarkable that students did not probe her further, as she had a strict policy of "tell if they ask." Her research brought forth three defining aspects of student life-choice, individualism, and materialism-and found that university efforts to build community among the freshmen were largely unsuccessful. In addition, the author learned why many students find cheating an acceptable response to managing tight schedules and gained insights into the nature of the informal conversations students have about their professors and courses. In the end, she offers a good understanding of the current generation of college students and the broader culture from which they have emerged. Recommended for both public and academic libraries.-Jean Caspers, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801443978
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 9/9/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebekah Nathan is a pseudonym for Cathy Small. She has been a professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University for fifteen years.

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Table of Contents

1. Welcome to "AnyU"

2. Life in the Dorms

3. Community and Diversity

4. As Others See Us

5. Academically Speaking…

6. The Art of College Management

7. Lessons from My Year as a Freshman

Afterword: Ethics and Ethnography
Notes
References
Index

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