Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year: Part 1

Collected below is the first part of my notes on reading My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, a pop-ethnographic study of undergraduates conducted at Northern Arizona University – anonymized as AnyU – in 2002 by Rebekah Nathan, the pseudonym of Cathy Small, a Professor of Anthropology at the same institution.

Perhaps because of confusion over its use of a fairly accessible and popular style of writing (a paperback edition was published by Penguin and, ironically, the second-hand copy I own once belonged to the Faculty Development Program at Northern Arizona University itself), much of the reception of the book initially focused on pseudo-scandalous issues relating to the anonymous identity of the author. The New York Sun published an exposé before the book had even been published, justified by the odd claim that ‘university presses are geared more toward influencing academic debate than to seeking the publicity that anonymous works sometimes generate’ (this faulty logic implies that scholarly publications can only influence academic debate if the identity of the author is known and that publications would only be anonymous in order to seek publicity, overlooking all the legitimate reasons why an scholarly publication might influence academic debates precisely because it was anonymous). Other responses, such as this Inside Higher Ed article, this Chronicle of Higher Education article and their readers comments below the line, and this Anthropological Review Database review, focused upon and often questioned the ethics of the research itself, although as Kenny and Smillie (2015: 21) point out, ultimately ‘Small’s study posed little risk for those she was observing.’

Surprisingly, less attention has been paid to the insights about university teaching and learning discovered by the research itself. Here, I’d link to summarize some of Small’s central findings and suggest a way of rethinking their continued relevance for understanding contemporary higher education. This first section will focus on how research and teaching intersect in Small’s work, suggesting how her anthropological approach to “student culture” might provide useful insights for thinking about teaching and learning across all disciplines of higher education.

1. Anthropologizing Pedagogy

One way to approach Small’s book is as an example of the relatively minor academic genre of disciplinary reflection that bridges the perceived gap between research and teaching within higher education. As I’ve previously mentioned in relation to Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature, George Levine (2001: 7 & 9) has described how the academic profession systematically divides our work as teachers and our work as scholars into separate domains and, because it ‘rewards one half much more than it does the other, even when both activities are done by the same faculty member’, it is only ‘after a faculty member has made a name in research can he or she feel free to write about teaching.’ For Levine (2001: 17), however, ‘writing about teaching must become as a central to professional life as writing about Renaissance poetry, Derrida, Hegel, or popular culture.’ To do so, he proposes the development of a ‘whole new genre that would make it possible to see discussions of teaching as integral to the development of knowledge,’ transforming the practice of research so that ‘publication of essays about the teaching of literature [becomes] the norm, not the exception’ (Levine 2001: 12).

When the literary theorist Elaine Showalter takes up the challenge of such writing in Teaching Literature, this division is bridged by approaching teaching and learning from the disciplinary perspective of her research expertise, reconciling the two by thinking of literature as pedagogical and pedagogy as literary. For Showalter (2003: 11-12), this involves not only a transformation of research but a transformation of teaching as well: ‘we should Smallreconceive our pedagogy to make it as intellectually challenging as our research …reflecting upon the relationship between what we teach and how we teach it, in new ways, so that the same problems we deal with in our research, including performance and narrative, become part of the vocabulary.’

Similarly, Small’s My Freshman Year might be understood to bridge the professional division between her own disciplinary research and teaching by choosing to take the university itself and its student community as the site for her anthropological research. As she notes in the preface to her book, ‘The idea for doing this research really gelled after I audited a couple of courses for my own continuing interest and education’ (Nathan 2005: ix). The book, as an example of Levine’s new genre, therefore provides both an engaging, entry-level introduction to anthropology and suggestions for how all educators might transform their teaching based on the insights of her anthropological perspective.

2. Professional Student Culture

While some might find Small’s anthropological insights – to develop ‘affection and respect’ not just for individual students but ‘students as a class’ in order to recall ‘the lesson of compassion’ for all those ‘at the other end of a professor’s encouragement,’ where ‘sometimes nothing more than teacher’s outreach pushes the balance’ for those ‘on the fence between giving up and making more of an effort’ (Nathan, 2005: 134-5) – too obvious or banal, these suggestion are tempered by her qualification that while there ‘is no doubt that special professors do make a difference in the life of specific students …overall, I’d suggest, student-teacher relationships play a relatively minor role in the experience of undergraduate life in a large university’ and so consequently increased contact time between teachers and students will do little to ‘raise retention rates’ (140).

Rather than relying on these ‘inaccurate or idealized versions of what students are …student issues should [instead] be analysed with a fuller understanding of how they are embedded in student culture’ (141). And, Small suggests, contemporary student culture is undergoing a number of substantial changes: whereas higher education might once have been viewed as a ‘rite of passage …marked by severance from one’s normal status, entrance into a “liminal” state where normal rules of society are lifted, and finally reintegrated into society with a new status,’ the transformative potential of such a “liminal” experience are increasingly threatened, she argues, when universities becomes ‘so immersed in the world as it is that it can neither critique that world nor proffer an ideal vision of how else it might be’ or, as she puts it, ‘when the world is so much with them‘ (152; emphasis added).

Small’s own immersion into student culture at AnyU provides some perspective on the ways in which, according to her, universities have become so immersed in the world that it is difficult to become detached from the normal rules of society and enter this liminal state:

‘The data suggested then that, compared to students a couple of decades ago, today’s public college students are both studying a little less and socializing less. What, then, are they doing with their “extra” time? According to my local sample, students were first and foremost working jobs, both inside and outside the university …more than half of my sample had a wage-paying job, working from six to over twenty-five hours, with a median of fifteen hours, every week …Nationally, full-time students worked an average of ten hours per week [according to the NSSE survey] …By the time they are seniors, 88 percent of students will be working either on or off campus’ (130)

According to Small’s research, ‘Students work jobs not just for their tuition but for a lifestyle to which all have grown accustomed – with the result that there are fewer hours for academics and more need for easy As and homework shortcuts’ (141). In other words, contemporary ‘student culture’ has, like many parts of wider American society, become dominated not only by the demands of present or future working life but the expectations of a consumer culture that stands in opposition to the very notion of a ‘student culture,’ idealized in terms of a scholarly or learning community. As Small writes, ‘students with “stuff” have no use for many community facilities and activities because they have resources of their own’ (141).

This has an impact not only upon the time spent on activities other than learning, such as individualized modes of consuming and waged and voluntary work, but also transforms the activity of learning itself: students become more efficient by working at being “students”. Although academic staff constantly preach the virtues of “time management” to students, this management of time is entirely a one-way expectation: it is students that must adapt to the multiple and uncoordinated teaching schedules, assignment deadlines and office hours of individual academics and of departmental or university programs. ‘The key to managing time was not, as college officials suggested, avoiding wasted minutes by turning yourself into an agent of your day planner. Neither was it severely curtailing your leisure or quitting your paying job. Rather,’ Small writes, ‘it was controlling college by shaping schedules, taming professors, and limiting workload’ (110-113). Thus ‘a kind of Spartan efficiency …[a] kind of strategic corner-cutting is part of what students learn in college,’ such that while skipping reading, omitting preparation, cutting writing time, cramming and even cheating results in lesser quality work, this is strategically employed to make time for higher priority activities, less as a result of individual student choices than of the pressures and expectations of the wider world (121-3).

This instrumental efficiency also applies to the professionalization of student work itself:

‘At one university-sponsored presentation for freshman, the speaker advised us to sit in the “reverse T” (the center of the room or front row), in the professor’s field of vision …Perhaps their outlook explains the national data, which shows that, as students continue through their undergraduate years, they not only ask more questions in class but also report speaking to teachers more outside of class. Although one could attribute this difference to increased interest in classes or improved self-confidence, I think it is at least partially explained by the advice proffered by successful students …about creating and using relationships with professors …[that] fits nicely with a careerist cultural outlook that privileges grades and degrees’ (118)

As John Marsh has commented, ‘Nathan’s anthropological subjects – students – described their academic work, their professors, and themselves …in disturbingly similar ways to what I know of how workers described their jobs, their bosses, and themselves’ and ‘Nathan comments that “several of the undergraduates whom I as a fellow student admired most cast professor-student relations as a rough facsimile of the boss-worker relationship”. ‘We have heard much talk – and most of us have recoiled from it – of students as consumers, but,’ Marsh therefore asks, ‘might students be workers?’ Marsh therefore insists that, precisely as human capital, students are – along with those who teach them – co-workers of themselves. Much of this seems correct, particularly the way it emphasizes the professionalizing of learning as one of many competing activities all subsumed under the unity of work: a reflection of the domination of abstract labour. There is a danger, however, that this obscures Small’s broader point: that student learning has become work-like precisely in order to accommodate the necessary time for (present and preparation for future waged) work, i.e. precisely because it isn’t work.

In the next section, I want to discuss the implication of this argument for understanding the fragmentation of student culture more generally. In particular, I want to connect Small’s own research with the technological emergence of social media and suggest how attempts to promote idealized learning communities reflect an anxiety over such fragmentation that inevitably founder when confronted with real “social networks”.

Works Referenced

Gershman, Jacob. 2005. ‘On the Trail of an Undercover Professor’. New York Sun

Jaschik, Scott. 2005. ‘Undercover Freshman’. Inside Higher Ed.

Kenny, Michael G. and Smillie, Kirsten. 2015. Stories of Culture and Place: An Introduction to Anthropology. North York, University of Toronto Press.

Lawless, Robert. 2005. Review of My Freshman YearAnthropology Review Database.

Levine, George. 2001. ‘The Two Nations’. Pedagogy 1.1.

Marsh, Josh. 2006. ‘Thinking About Students as Workers’. Inside Higher Ed.

Nathan, Rebekah, 2005. ‘An Anthropologist Goes Under Cover’. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Nathan, Rebekah, 2005. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. London, Penguin Books.

Showalter, Elaine. 2003. Teaching Literature. Malden, MA., Oxford and Carlton, Australia: Blackwell.

2 thoughts on “Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Student Culture: Anthropological Insights into Teaching and Learning – HEAT:

  2. Pingback: Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year: Part 2 | Pedagogy & the Inhumanities

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