Rebekah Nathan’s Freshman Year

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Book/Film Reviews


I just finished a book that provides an interesting response to the question I hinted at in my last posting, namely, what makes up that component of the college experience that seems to command so much more of the cost of college than do classes alone?

My Freshman Year, by Rebekah Nathan (a pseudonym, for reasons that will become obvious) is the chronicle of a college professor who decided to pose as a student for a year to explore the lives of an undergraduate population that was becoming more unfamiliar to her, despite the number of years she had spent on campuses as both a student and teacher.

Professor Nathan’s field is anthropology and having used her skills to perform field research in remote communities, it dawned on her that she had the toolset needed to explore another strange culture: undergraduate life at her own university (a medium-size state college which she dubbed AnyU in order to preserve anonymity).

Ethical and professional rules regarding anthropological field work prevented her from revealing the names of the people she was studying, which is why she used an alias for both herself and the school where she both taught at participated as a Freshman. But those rules did allow her to enroll as an undergraduate at her own school, live in the dorms for a year, take classes alongside other (all younger) students, and become part of a world she had only observed from the front of a classroom.

Her subject of study was the American college student, circa 2003 (the year she did her field work for the book which was published in 2005), which is why she made use of interviews with international students who were able to provide their own observations of their US-born classmates. But much of the rest of her research consisted of bread-and-butter anthropological data collection, including documenting everything from dorm room door art, bathroom graffiti and hallway conversations to her own experience managing a course schedule that was jammed enough without field work taking up so many hours of her day.

Packed schedules are one theme she explores, given that most of the students she observed seemed to have crammed every hour with classes, studying, extra-curricular activities and social events, to the point where it became nearly impossible to create a community within the dorm, best exemplified by shrinking attendance at “mandatory” dorm meetings which most students blew off to do other things. And despite the fact that AnyU (like all campuses) prided itself on diversity, lack of commitment to non-self-selected spaces (like the dorm room vs. the chosen class or club) meant students were spending very little time in places where they might encounter people significantly different than themselves.

Many of the students she observed also had to fit part-time jobs into their schedules, which is one reason (among many) why blowing off classes and assignments, as well as other forms of corner-cutting (up to and including cheating) was widespread, to the point of becoming a source of social bonding (rather than embarrassment) within the student body.

Having had my own residential college experience many years ago, I marvel at the number of new choices available to today’s undergraduates: funky classes (many of which are finding their way into MOOClandia), new majors, travel and exchange opportunities, clubs covering every conceivable interest, and a cultural scene that provides film, music, art and partying options every day of the week (not just Friday and Saturday as in my day).

But this bounty of (and infatuation with) choices has a downside, in that it provides students more and more opportunity to spread themselves thin, to the point where commitment to causes, classes, even friendships can always be replaced in an instant with a new set of available options.

AnyU circa 2003 was also a more pragmatic place than I associate with college where the majority of students select a major, do no more than is needed to earn expected grades, select extra-curriculars in areas that might help them in the future, all in an effort to ensure their college degree would land them a job and put them on a career path post-graduation. This is not to say that those of us who went to school a few decades ago didn’t also fret about how we would earn a living after graduating. But, according to Nathan’s account, it seems as though worry that kicked in for us towards the end of Junior year is top of mind for incoming Freshmen.

The conclusion of Nathan’s book includes a quick but highly informative analysis of how growth in college enrollments and the way today’s higher education industry is financed contribute to the type of student body she encountered during her year-long exploration. In fact, I enjoyed this part of the book more than much of her field-work analysis, which seemed thin in places (it’s a short book) and somewhat straightjacketed by the (understandable) rules she applied to protect the privacy of those she was studying.

That said, I’d love to send her (or someone with her skill set) back into the field in 2014 to see how ubiquitous computing – not in place even in 2003 – might have transformed the campus yet again. What’s the dorm like today when social networking means students are bringing their high school friends (i.e, their social networks) to college with them? And are students still smiling and waving at one another as the rush from class to class or trying to avoid eye contact as they stare down at their smartphones? And while technology has made less of an impact on students’ classroom vs. social lives over the last decade, one component of the MOOC story involves the flipped classroom (where students are doing things different than what was described in My Freshman Year) starting down the path towards mainstream acceptance.

As previously noted, there are ways of calculating the cost of the classroom component of college that say three quarters of what you spend to obtain a post-secondary education go to things not involving academic studies. Which makes it all the more important to get a handle on what these other things are to see if they are worth what students are paying (or if they combine with academics to create an aggregate experience that is worth a six-figure price tag).

Professor Nathan paints a picture of students leading busy, disconnected lives where getting a job after graduation takes precedent over what you learn before being handed a diploma. And while I’m sure her experience at AnyU does not reflect the experience of all college students everywhere, it certainly seems as though the idyllic four years that serve as the basis of comparison for MOOCs and other higher-ed alternatives needs to be modified to reflect contemporary reality.

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One Response to Rebekah Nathan’s Freshman Year

  1. Susan Wiegand May 30, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

    It has been well over ten years since I noticed even adolescents having more of a concern about how school and college were going to lead to a specific career than I ever had in college, or even noticed among my peers, which were at a high-level engineering school and then also at one of the Seven Sisters. A thirteen year old doesn’t have any understanding of the richness and variety of what is possible to pursue in the world, and yet they are already narrowing themselves. Again, this was already happening ten years ago, and is worse now. It breaks my heart. On a brighter side, I am suddenly hearing the value of “English Majors” singing out in the stodgiest of corporate areas. Really, it is true. Suddenly people are noticing that the “English Majors” are able to read to understand and write to be understood, in general “to communicate”, which is tragically difficult and arduous for people who decided it was of no use to learn to read and write effectively. Revenge is sweet, but it is all so very sad.

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