A cultural anthropologist – professor at a university, female, in her 50s – realized that she no longer understood the students entering her university. Her formative theory base was to focus on the student population at her university. She did not wish, however, to conduct a study from the professor-student perspective. After much consideration and discussion with colleagues she enrolled at her university as an incoming first-time-freshmen (FTF) student.
She debated about the ethical situations she would face in undertaking such a study. Here are a few of the issues she mentions: Can an anthropologist legitimately go “undercover”? How to deal with the Institutional Research Board? Would she be discovered? In terms of methodology: Would she be able to record her personal experiences or anything that was said to her for the findings since she did not disclose her identity.
Ch. 1 – Welcome to “Any U”
Rebekah Nathan, pseudonym, had spent most of her professional life living oversees studying a remote village studying a culture foreign to her. After more than 15 years of university teaching, students had become increasing confusing to her. She questioned why students never stopped by to see her during office hours; how students used class time to eat full meals; many did not take notes during lectures; students took naps during class.
She audited two courses and saw how by simply “acting” like a student gave her an in with students. They no longer addressed her in the same manner as would be the case of the students knew she was a professor auditing a class.
She mentions the work of Michael Moffatt, who conducted research at Rutgers University between 1977 and 1987 and wrote an ethnography about the experience. Rebekah hoped to bring a new light to this topic which included a woman’s point-of-view.
She applied for admission in the spring of 2002. After being admitted, she received – as all freshmen did – and invitation to attend a two-day Preview session, an orientation to college.
How I Would Represent Myself
This was a great issue to consider. She discussed this issue with friends and colleagues to determine the best way to handle this. Scenario exploration, role-playing, and discussions were conducted. She would have to misrepresent the truth of who she is in order to conduct this study.
Enter the Abyss
In June 2002, she attended the Previews. Rebekah took great care in getting ready believing that her clothing would support her persona. She was wrong; she soon discovered that she was dressed like the parents of the incoming freshmen. She was mistaken for a parent when checking-in.
Rebekah discovered the many activities and situations that a student encounters. Even though she worked at this university, where she was now pretending to be a FTF student, she did not know what the orientation day content consisted of and was surprised by some of the sessions.
Welcome Week: Life in Anther Culture
She moved into the dorm on a Saturday in August. She participated in many of the Welcome Week activities. She discusses her familiarity of the campus and compares that to her student point-of-view. She felt lost and a bit “clueless” culminating in an experience for her. Rebekah, over 21 years of age, decided to indulge in an alcoholic beverage in a common area and got busted. She realized that she was out of touch with the current lingo. Rebekah figured that since she was proving to be an outgoing personality that she was being accepted into the culture as any freshmen student would be.
During her one year study, she was able to conduct 40 interviews, two focus groups, and several “mini-studies.”
She was a participant-observer – while in an activity, she was not able to write many of the field notes.
Ch. 2 Life in the Dorms
Rebekah notes that the dorms were built in the 1940s. Two people commonly shared a small space. The kitchen, bathroom, and lounge areas were communal style living arrangements. She noted the crowing in the bathroom early in the morning as everyone was trying to get ready to attend class. She kept careful records of the formal bulletin board displays, the pictures, the Resident Assistant’s door displays, and of how the outside door to a dorm room changed. Rebekah noted that some student doors were decorated elaborately while others more simply.
Individuality and Freedom of Choice were constant these observed by Rebekah.
The Absolutely Positively Mandatory First Hall Meeting
Not all residents showed up for the meeting. Rebekah listened to the rules, spoken and unspoken, about dorm life.
She noted the difference between the weeks before classes and compared it to the routine of class attendance. Her hall mates were like “ships that passed in the night.” Rebekah was overwhelmed at first – 15 unit course load. She noted statistics relevant to student study time. Rebekah noted that compared to Moffatt’s study, many students spent their hours outside of class and study time holding down a job and/or volunteering for community service.
She noted that scheduled activities were different for different students. Her summation is that it is hard to create a community when the sheer number of options in college life generates a system in which no one is in the same place at the same time.
Rebekah feels that there are two implications due to this issue:
- There is little that is shared between students by virtue of attending the same university. It takes forethought and effort to overlap with others or to build a social circle.
- Despite the emphasis on community, there is no true opportunity to build it; it becomes both elusive and unreliable.
Rebekah gives the example that when she returned to the dorms after completing the study; she could not find one person she recognized in her old corridor.
She discusses her findings on students changing majors and students changing organizations or club memberships.
Ch. 3 Community and Diversity
She begins this chapter by describing one of the sessions she attended which took the students through their shared history.
How Community Works at AnyU
Rebekah noted that there is a Freshmen Colloquium that is required of FTF. She wrote that the faculty had an ambitious and, what they thought exciting, agenda. These faculty required readings over the summer. The author was invited to speak to the students and it was hoped that since all the FTF were required to read the book that this would be a great basis for discussion. For the administration, it was another way to foster community building and contribute to retention. She acknowledges that she was one of the last to take the course; it was nullified by the university because it did not work as hoped.
The question: How can we give students a sense of community?
Required common experiences are not popular. Rebekah again noted effort the university representatives took to attempt to engage the students. This included many notices inviting students to partake in activities. One example was that of her RA. The RA sent out a survey to determine what the residents wanted. The responses determined that a movie night was something that was wanted. The RA held a movie night, but only two people showed the first week and nobody showed the following time.
The American Way: The Individualism in Community
Fewer than 10% of AnyU residents are members of fraternities and sororities. She found profound ambivalence about community life.
She highlights the trends in dormitory living – higher in amenities and lower in density, no communal bathrooms, lounge, or washing machine. We want our privacy!
Rebekah shared the example of the well-publicized Super bowl. The RA’s were going to provide snacks. She showed up early to get a good seat. Very few students showed up. While walking her corridor she noticed that students were watching the game with their group of friends in their crowded rooms.
AnyU’s Read Community: The Ego-Centered Network
The interviewees felt they had a strong sense of community. Their meaning, however, was not what she expected. They had small, ego-centered groups which were the backbone of most college students’ social experience.
She explained the type of small friend groupings in great detail. Rebekah found that student networks have less to do with personality than with shared circumstances and shared demographics. Most students that come to AnyU have already formed relationships or expectations of who they will friend. She surmised that despite the belief that college expands our social horizons and extends our experiences to include new and different types of people, the findings suggest otherwise.
Students experienced contacts with the same people.
Diversity at AnyU
About 22 – 25% of the student population at AnyU are considered “minority” by federal standards. Students shared with Rebekah that they had experienced racism. Stories consisted of rude remarks on the street, hostile looks or comments made in class.
Who Eats with Whom: A Study of Student Dining
Only about 1% of white males ate with males of a different ethnicity. The number increased to about 6% when women were present.
Ch. 4 – As Others See Us
Rebekah, being an outsider herself, focuses on the International Student population at AnyU.
Getting to Know “American” Students
Interviewees tell their stories complete with expectations and reality that they faced when interacting with American students.
There were common themes here: American students are artificial in their friendliness.
Relationships and Friendships
One student shared a story; the roommate comes out looking hostile and inconsiderate. Another shared that he was plainly told that he was a roommate, nothing more. But yet another was relieved that there were no obligations of courtesy or friendship in this scenario.
Again, it was noted that students here were extremely independent. Some students were shocked that American students did not interact more with parents and family.
International Students were shocked with our pajama wearing population. The lack of formality, eating, leaving, and interrupting (asking questions) stood out to these students.
They were also surprised by the professors. The students felt that the professors here were more laid back than in their respective countries. One student likened teaching in America to a one-man show. The goal of entertainment to retain students’ attention was a new experience. Again, the impression of the ability to choose and catering to the feelings and needs of the American student was mentioned.
Worldliness and Worldview
There was great comment on the ignorance of the American student population in regards to a place other than the U.S. The International Students were amazed at the ethnocentric tendencies that were exhibited by the American student population. The best question, in my opinion, was: “Is Japan in China?” There were others. A student shared that the manner in which he ate his noodles (loudly) as was the custom in his country garnered him dirty looks from another student.
Ch. 5 – Academically Speaking
Rebekah had often used an exercise in her class. It was a witch hunt – Identify the witch. She stated that invariably, the witches were always those students that paid attention, took notes, asked questions, etc.
Conventions of the Classroom
She asked her interviewees why there was no participation in class discussion. She lists many of their statements including, “Opinions are personal. I don’t feel everyone needs to know my business.”
She realized that she needed to find a different way to get answers. She would write talking points and place them in women’s bathrooms and hoped to get anonymous comments.
What You Really Learn in College
Learning is not only happening in the classroom. Some students admitted that classes and school work were a minor part of what they were learning. She polled students about how much (percentage) of their learning came from classes. The median response was that 65% of learning occurs outside of class and class-related activities. If students don’t come to school to learn, why are they there? She followed up by asking if given the chance, would they take their degree and run.
Thirty-eight women responded anonymously. Eleven said they would pay for their degree and leave citing reasons such as, “I want to start my life.” Two-thirds of the sample would choose to stay in college and finish their degrees the old-fashioned way.
- Share your college experience.
- Does the individualistic nature apply to you? Do you feel that this is an issue for our college students?
- If you were teaching undergrads, would you consider the ability to act as a one-man show a necessity in order to keep students engaged? What would you do if there was no participation during your lectures?
- Is anyone surprised by her findings? If yes, please elaborate.