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.

Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature

Some notes on teaching-led research that I first posted, on the Higher Education and Theory (HEAT) network blog, in relation to a summary of Elaine Showalter’s ‘Teaching Literature’ a few years ago:

HEAT: Higher Education and Theory

To teach is to be battered
Scrutinized, and drained,
Day after day. We know this.
Still, it is never said.
– Jane Tompkins, A Life in School, 1

Collected below are my notes on reading Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature, first published in 2003. Showalter is a (now retired) Professor of English at Princeton, perhaps most well known for her 1979 work ‘Towards A Feminist Poetics’ in which she advocated a practice of gynocritics that sought to develop new models for literary criticism ‘based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories’ (Showalter 1986: 131) .

ES begins by pointing out that most practical studies of teaching English emphasize the teaching of composition rather than the teaching of literature itself (vii). Her book is an attempt to respond to this deficit. Two guiding themes seem to run through it: first, that part of the reason for this deficit is, negatively, connected to our own anxiety…

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The metaphysic of dunces

We had something when there was the terrorist driving along on the bridge recently, we were supposed to be on that bridge at that time, myself and [husband] Jack.

We had a meeting in London with a PR company and we were driving on the A3 in Surrey. We normally always go the Wandsworth way, south and then back over the bridge.

Anyway we were talking about it and he went ‘We’re gonna go this way, we’re gonna go Putney way’ and I went ‘Oh alright then, we’ll see what happens’.

Thank God we did because we were literally the other side of the bridge when mayhem just went off. We would have been just off that bridge, on the other side of it, just coming off at that moment.

[nods when suggested to her that she had responded to a feeling that something was off, and a “flutter”]

…I did think, ‘Oh my God, what was that about?’ We never go the other way – never.

Thank God we weren’t there for what we might have seen, or what might have happened to us. As it was everyone was ringing us checking we were OK.

The sat nav was saying to go the other way and we always put the same thing in and it always says to go the way we go and Jack said, ‘Oh maybe we should just go Putney way’ and I said, ‘no, Putney’s always really busy’

– Martine McCutcheon, Loose Women

Adorno considered modern occultism as the counterpart to fascism. Both are symptoms of the tendency of rational thought to regress to an irrational form of rationalism under late capitalism, demonstrating the central hypothesis of Dialectic of Enlightenment: enlightenment reverts to mythology.

The ‘power of occultism, as of Fascism …lies in the fact that …consciousness famished for truth imagines it is grasping a dimly present knowledge diligently denied to it by official progress in all its forms. It is the knowledge that society, by virtually excluding the possibility of spontaneous change, is gravitating towards total catastrophe’ (Adorno, ‘Theses Against Occultism,’ 174-175). For those living under the administered society of late capitalism, the system is a net of relations in which they are caught, in which ‘everything is linked up with everything else and that they have no way out, but at the same time the whole mechanism is so complicated that they fail to understand its raison d’être and even more, they suspect that this closed and systematic organization of society does not really serve their wants and needs…’. And this system, ‘in spite of its closedness and the ingenuity of its technological functioning, seems actually to move towards self-destruction.’

The Sat-Nav

When the individual subject becomes the ‘object of large-scale organization and coordination,’ Marcuse had argued a decade earlier, individualistic rationality becomes transformed into the standardardized efficiency of a technological rationality, primarily ‘characterized by the fact that the individual’s performance is motivated, guided and measured by standards external to him, standards pertaining to predetermined tasks and functions’ (Marcuse, ‘Some Social Implications of Modern Technology,’ 65). Marcuse’s example, from 1941, makes it clear how technology indicates not the technical apparatus per se but a ‘social process …a mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships’ (Marcuse, 63):

Let us take a simple example. A man who travels by automobile to a distant place chooses his route from the highway maps. Towns, lakes and mountains appear as obstacles to be bypassed. The countryside is shaped and organized by the highway. Numerous signs and posters tell the traveler what to do and think; they even request his attention to the beauties of nature or the hallmarks of history. Others have done the thinking for him, and perhaps for the better …He will fare best who follows its directions, subordinating his spontaneity to the anonymous wisdom which ordered everything for him. The decisive point is that this attitude – which dissolves all actions into a sequence of semi-spontaneous reactions to prescribed mechanical norms – is not only perfectly rational but also perfectly reasonable. All protest is senseless, and the individual who would insist on his freedom of action would become a crank. There is no personal escape from the apparatus which has mechanized and standardized the world. It is a rational apparatus, combining utmost expediency with utmost convenience, saving time and energy, removing waste, adapting all means to the end, anticipating consequences, sustaining calculability and security (Marcuse, 66)

The development and apotheosis of such technological rationality today has, however, become objectified in the technical apparatus itself, in the sat-nav that now continually selects for us a route shaped and organized by others. “Go Putney way.”

Grasping a dimly present knowledge of the closed and systematic organization of society, in which the possibility of spontaneous change – “we never go the other way, never” – is seemingly excluded, an irrational belief in the occult provides a ‘desperate short-cut’ for a rational understanding of the ‘opaque and reified world’ of late capitalism, ‘offering both spurious understanding and flight into a supposedly higher realm.’ A belief in the occult grants such a feeling a comforting, common-sensical and pseudo-rational form, ‘making the senseless appear as though it had some hidden and grandiose sense while at the same time corroborating that this sense can neither be sought in the realm of the human nor can properly be grasped by humans’ (Adorno, ‘The Stars Down to Earth’, 157).”Oh my God, what was that about?”

Occultism gives perverse expression to a sense of the absolutely interconnected nature of all people and things, a sense that is, in the era of technological rationality, neither anachronistically theological nor fully irrational. A belief in the occult replaces the belief in God, monotheism decomposes into a mythology of spirits and ‘the unconditional becomes fact, the conditional an immediate essence’ (Adorno, ‘Theses Against Occultism,’ 172). A rented grey Hyundai Tucson, driven by a 52-untitledyear old British man once called “black Ade,” with a history of racist experiences, a series of convictions for violent offenses and a late conversion to Islam, speeds along a London bridge before crashing into railings outside the Palace of Westminster. Nearby cars and buses jam the surrounding roads, while emergency vehicles converge on the scene. Satellites orbiting the earth at 20,000 km beam radio-waves at the speed of light to be received by sat-nav devices in travelling vehicles used to triangulate locations accurate to a few metres. Computing systems combine live and historic traffic data from other sat-nav systems, mobile phone networks, and private and public traffic information services and transmit alternative route suggestions to individual sat-nav devices. A minute and a half later, six people lay dead or mortally wounded.

The Flutter

Occultism simultaneously provides a comfortingly hyper-individualized belief in personal exceptionalism: “we were supposed to be on that bridge at that time… We had a meeting in London with a PR company …We would have been just off that bridge, on the other side of it, just coming off at that moment …Thank God we weren’t there for what we might have seen, or what might have happened to us.” Occult belief is part of and mirrors the ideology of the culture industry: ‘its message appears as something metaphysically meaningful, something where the spontaneity of life is being restored while actually reflecting the very same reified conditions which seem to be dispensed with through an appeal to the “absolute”’ (Adorno, ‘The Stars Down to Earth,’ 158-9). Such a message now assumes as great a motive as the pursuit of profit itself and, as ‘the culture industry turns into public relations, the manufacturing of “goodwill” per se …a general uncritical consensus’ is communicated ‘independent of the compulsion to sell the cultural commodities which must be swallowed anyway’ (Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered,’ 100).

O’Kane argues that today ‘both capitalism and occultism are [even] more pronounced,’ with, on the one hand, ‘the neo-liberal privatization and fetishization of the market’ and, on the other, the dissemination of the “new age” movement, accompanied by the rise of “positive psychology,” into a popular culture now ‘rife with products that resemble the Adornian occult’ (O’Kane, ‘Theses Against Occultism Today: Towards Capitalism as Occultism?,‘ 59). In Richard Curtis’s 2003 Love Actually, McCutcheon plays the down-to-earth, working-class love interest of Hugh Grant’s newly elected, post-Blair Prime Minister, David. While some (here and here) see Grant’s blue-tied, Thatcher-loving character as a version of the then-PM Tony Blair (and Curtis’s own politics as ‘soggy leftism’), this is virtually the same as saying he is an creepily prescient prophecy of the first half of David Cameron’s premiership (with Curtis only failing to anticipate Brown’s brokered deal to replace Blair in 2007), right down to Grant’s own hammy rehearsal of Cameron’s “Britain may be a small island” speech. This would be genuinely prescient if the political victory of Cameron’s “compassionate conservatism” wasn’t in part the very product of Curtis’s cinematic vision.

Tim Adams has described “Curtisland” as ‘an apolitical place, full of can-do possibility, obsessed with the educated middle class, perfectly relaxed about the filthy rich, much more in love with sentiment than ideas, and insatiable in its optimism.’ Cameron’s upbringing (son of a stockbroker, privately educated at Heatherdown School near Ascot and Eton, read PPE at Brasenose College, Oxford) is close enough to that of Curtis (son of a Unilever executive, privately educated at Pappelwick School near Ascot, head boy at Harrow, and read Literature and Language at Christ Church, Oxford) to makes him the ideal political leader of Curtisland; this is simply to say, as William Davies does, that because all Curtis’s films ‘are implicitly or explicitly about Richard Curtis …Love Actually …is basically 12 different plots, centred around Richard Curtis falling in love …In some of them Richard Curtis is gay or Prime Minister or a porn actor, just to prove how transferable his dreary middle class foppishness is from one scenario to the next’.

The cynicism of Bill Nighy’s rock star Billy Mack’s “festering turd of a record,” Christmas is All Around, provides the hyper-commercialized, ultra-commodified foil against which the real brands placed in Curtis’s film appear less as fetishized commodities and more as the backdrop to Curtis’s public relations exercise for a middle-class, gentrified London itself: ‘Hertz and Europcar simply appear onscreen in …Love Actually‘ (Lehu, ‘Branded Entertainment: Product Placement and Brand Strategy in the Entertainment Business,’ 5), just as the London restaurant Dans le Noir appears in About Time (2013). Similar to Curtis’s political public relations exercises in the Comic Relief and Make Poverty History campaigns, which are characterized by a revolution in cultural consumption rather than economic production, here the fetish character of the commodity is transferred to London and Britain themselves as cultural commodities. The manufacturing of good will, in Curtis’s films, becomes the commodification of love, happiness and British values; with the regression from religion to occultism, the ‘social quality that now animates’ such products is ‘given an independent existence both natural and supernatural, a thing among things’ (Adorno, ‘Theses Against Occultism,’ 173).

File:Love Actually (2003) Interconnections.svg

Love Actually‘s tightly triangulated net of social relations presents both the objectified spectacle of an interconnected society and the comforting metaphysics of fleeting but fatalistic encounters for a liberal and secular world: “perfect moments,” in the words of McCutcheon’s 1999 single, that offer the consolation that “if love never comes again; I can always say I’ve been; To paradise skies in your eyes.” As Grant’s PM David intones over the opening visuals:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the Arrivals Gate at Heathrow airport. General opinion’s starting  makes out that we live in a world of hatred and greed but I don’t see that. Seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified, or newsworthy – but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. Before  the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate and revenge – they were all messages of love. lf you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion you’ll find that love actually is all around. (Love Actually)

The Terror

For Adorno, the occult exercises a hynoptic power that, in merging with the acceptance of an authoritarian society, also mingles ‘sardonic laughter’ with a sense of the ‘hostile and conspiratorial’ forces that terrorize us (Adorno, ‘Theses on Occultism,’ The Stars Down to Earth, 173-175). In a world without accidents, Love Actually‘s reference to 9-11 is more than fortuitous. Similarly, Comic Relief’s Love Actually sequel, in which Grant’s re-elected PM gives another impassioned speech about love and humanity (‘Obviously, times have got harder, and people are nervous and fearful …Love is all around, most people still every day have enough love in their heart to help human beings in trouble. Good is going to win, I’m actually sure of it’), it also has been said, ‘presumably by serendipity, seemed to defy this week’s Westminster terror attacker.’

In this context, futile and senseless acts of random violence can assume the spectacle of political terror, providing succour for the way of life – the interconnected social relations – of those who rush to extract comforting meaning from them. According to Metropolitan police, the Westminster attacker is now believed to have ‘acted alone,’ with no certainty whether he had been inspired by terrorist propaganda and a ‘possibility we will never understand why he did this.’ Most news reports and politicians’ responses, however, emphasized the violence committed as an attack on the city, on the country, on the rule of law, on democracy, on abstract values of liberty, freedom, justice, tolerance, freedom of speech and human rights, on national spirit or on a whole way of life:

This was not only an attack on our city and our country but on the values we cherish most: democracy, freedom, justice and tolerance… We Londoners have experienced horrific attacks and tragedy before… Every time, without fail, those seeking to destroy our way of life have failed. (Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London)

The terrorist chose to strike at the heart of our capital city where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech. These streets of Westminster, home to the world’s oldest parliament are ingrained with a spirit of freedom that echoes in some of the furthest corners of the globe. And the values our Parliament represents – democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law, command the admiration and respect of free people everywhere. That is why it is a target for those who reject those values. (Theresa May, Prime Minister)

We may never know if it was also an attack on “the country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot, David Beckham’s left foot, come to that.”

In contrast to this, the media and political responses to the politically-motivated killing of MP Jo Cox were more cautious, muted and reserved, remaining focused on the personal, specific and concrete (here and here, for example, where only at the end does the PM describe ‘the democracy and freedoms Jo stood for’ as ‘unbreakable’). This despite the evidence that her 52-yeard old male killer self-identified as a ‘political activist,’ was inspired by the fascist terrorism of David Copeland and Anders Breivik, and sought to advance the cause of white supremacism and nationalism by bringing “Death to traitors,” declaring: “Britain first, keep Britain independent, Britain will always come first. This is for Britain.” There was, it seems, no terrorist attack against British values the day Jo Cox was assassinated. No one reported a flutter that afternoon. Occultism meets its match in fascism.