My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan

The pitch of My Freshman Year is as irresistible as it is troubling: a cultural anthropologist, the pseudonymous “Rebekah Nathan”, enrolled at her own university for the 2002-03 academic year as a freshman. She lived in dorms, took general education classes, ate at the cafeteria, and even got busted for drinking. While one might have qualms about its ethics (Nathan’s self-misrepresentation), and its plausibility (that first-year students would eagerly confide in someone twice their age), such cavils might easily fade if the payoff were rich enough. A shrewdly observed, well-reasoned book about the first-year experience from a professor would have real interest.

Unfortunately, My Freshman Year is not that book. In her first 50 pages, Nathan claims to be surprised by the following facts: students living in dorms sometimes use an advanced space-saving technology known as “lofts”; those same students decorate their doors according to an elaborate, if largely unacknowledged or inexplicit, semiotic code; and college-age Americans use the phrase “hooked up” to express a wide array of sexual encounters with an artful vagueness. She even seems surprised that words like “sweet” and “like” are ubiquitous — just as they have been for some 20 years. The book’s most pressing question is thus slightly different from the one Nathan imagines: who can teach for 15-plus years and know so little about students?

As befits someone as easily surprised as Rebekah Nathan, the book is full of path-breaking information about college students. Another selection of insights: Students who live in dorms take a dim view of forced community-building. Students these days devote lots of time to part-time (and full-time) jobs. Students use cellular telephones and instant messaging to communicate. Nathan’s students don’t seem to value college as a time of intellectual growth or exploration; instead, she notes, they quickly figure out to skip assignments for which they won’t be quizzed. This sort of lore is probably useful for new teachers, or for parents who want to know where their tuition money is going, but it can’t seriously shock anyone who’s been in the classroom longer than a semester, or who has spoken with a student taking a required course outside her major.

Ultimately, it turns out that Nathan’s method, the participant-observer approach so common in cultural anthropology and ethnography, is too limiting to be of real value in this context. For example, she cites a student’s crafty approach to managing professors: “I’m friendly with them. I ask them about their weekend and tell them about mine … If they like you and you need a favor or have a problem, they’ll be more likely to resolve it in your favor.” Nathan defends this reasoning as “from [a student’s] point of view … realistic and mature.” But it’s nonsense as an explanation for dealing with professors. First, it begs a serious question about causation. Not all professors are approachable in this way, whether from personality or policy, and some will deliberately quash such a personal approach. Second, it would be interesting to hear other professors’ take on this. On the one hand, I know perfectly well that, for better and for worse, I prefer for my students to like me than otherwise. On the other hand, so many different kinds of students are chatty and sociable that it’s impossible to award grades or resolve disputes on affability alone. Every semester, I’ve had to fail on specific assignments students with whom I enjoy speaking. In fact, since so many of my university’s students stay in the area, it’s important to be on good terms with them, regardless of their performance in the class. While I am as subject to flattery as the next man, my public performance of sociability can even be a screen for a tendency toward misanthropy.

When Nathan does step outside the participant-observer frame, and sum up the ways she has changed her teaching, the book plunges from merely banal to depressing. She explicitly advocates adopting her students’ perspective on what an appropriate amount of reading is, for example, or on whether it’s reasonable to expect students to remember the previous class’s material. What’s frustrating is that, rather than showing average students how the most successful students are frequently the busiest — the ones, that is, with the most extracurricular demands upon their time — she simply validates their feeling “virtuous that they’re present for class, that they remembered to bring the right notebook, and that they managed to catch a bus that delivered them on time.”

Immediately upon the book’s publication, the New York Sun identified Nathan’s alma mater as NAU (Northern Arizona University), and “Rebekah Nathan” as Cathy Small. While the NAU institutional review board did certify Small’s study, I can’t imagine that this book will help people, especially parents, Arizona taxpayers, and other stakeholders, view the university in a favorable light.

It’s a shame that this book is so disappointing, because Nathan/Small is right about its need. Professors do need to think about how students will view their classes, about how their university’s marketing and student affairs rhetoric lines up with their own, and about how we can encourage the life of the mind when students have to work 30 hours a week, and borrow thousands of dollars a year, to afford an education.