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

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

After fifteen years of teaching anthropology at a large university, Rebekah Nathan had become baffled by her own students.

So Nathan decided to do what anthropologists do when confused by a different culture: Go live with them.

Her discoveries about contemporary undergraduate culture are surprising and her observations are invaluable, making My Freshman Year essential reading for students, parents, faculty, and anyone interested in educational policy.

Reviews of the My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student

As Nathan/Small was writing about her experience living in the dorms and taking freshman-level classes, writing about real students most of whom didn't recognize that she was an anthropologist undercover studying them her choice made sense. In other words, Nathan/Small developed a remarkably comprehensive "insider's" view of the college experience, as students actually experience it (rather than how we remember it). Those of us working at colleges and universities often think that the classes are the most important part of time at college. In fact, when studying with a friend from her French class, she found herself following student norms in saying, "Forget that... There are two things that are important to this interaction, Nathan/Small's easy falling into the culture's norms, but also her fellow student's response: "Is that the only reason you are learning this material... Being too noticeable in class makes one a "witch." Ugh. The kinds of student questions that bring a faculty member near orgasm are "What does that mean?" "Is there any other way of explaining this?" Definitely not the sort of questions that Nathan/Small saw students asking (again, would break group norms). From a student's perspective, signing other students onto class lists, sharing test questions, and working together on assignments just makes sense.

Some students do love the subjects professors teach, but even if they do, there are a lot of pressures bearing down on them. 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 in the interim, in addition, perhaps, to working a job and attending residence hall or club programs. If they were like me as a student, they feel virtuous that they're present for class, that they remembered to bring the right notebook, and that they managed to catch a bus that has delivered them on time.

However, the book is instead an anthropological study of college life and college students, with very little retelling of actual interactions or funny moments. While "college students" are the focus of the book, I think her observations can easily be applied to the overall American culture.

Aside from the fact that as an older woman living in a dorm she will NEVER be totally privy to the living situation, she does attend classes, conduct interviews, and try to partake of an authentic freshman year. Perhaps some of these observations would have been different had she lived in a freshman dorm. She certainly makes some very valid observations about how students structure their work habits and schedules, and suggests some ways for professors to make their assignments more valuable - and actually get their students to DO them. She presents her final thoughts on her experience, and makes suggestions for both students and professors. But much of her 'college experience' was spent in classes, in dorms, or observing in public areas. Little of her book reads from the point of view of a student, but instead as a removed observer. I could see how some of the points made towards the end would be valuable - perhaps to professors, and much of the book might be an interesting read for parents.

The one thing I will say for the book is that the narrator is appealing and the stories she tells about her decisions to go back to school, and her ethical considerations in making friends among the freshman and then writing about them, were interesting and well done.

Leaving aside the question of why it didn't occur to a 50 year old anthropologist to cover her ethical bases better (what the heck was she doing in her other field sites where people were less likely to call her out on it?), this book is utterly unrevealing if you spend any time with 18-25 year olds.

(NerdBowlers accounted for the rest.) One of the author's take-away lessons was that college is more about time-management than it is about learning the material for any one class (even if the class is in one's major). I'm sure that's a sad realization for any professor with a passion for their subject, but good time-management and prioritization skills are surely more important lessons to learn.

I remember a big newsbreaking story when we found out that the anonymous school was Northern Arizona University (a three hour drive from where I'm writing). Since most of our social and community activities do not have deadlines, they tend to get pushed aside in the hustle-bustle of our lives.

  • English

  • Nonfiction

  • Rating: 3.20
  • Pages: 208
  • Publish Date: July 25th 2006 by Penguin Books
  • Isbn10: 0143037471
  • Isbn13: 9780143037477