(Nathan) My freshman year, 1st half [Donna]

Nathan, R. (2005). My freshman year: What a professor learned by becoming a student. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Rebekah Nathan is a pseudonym used by a professor of anthropology and a large state university to become a student at her own university. In the spring of 2002 she applied and was admitted as an entering freshman. This book is an accounting, if you will, of her freshman year experience.

Today we will be discussing the first half of the book. Nan will take us through the last half of the book later in the semester.

She explains that she did not set out to do a type of ethnography on the freshman year experience, but that the idea evolved over time based on her experiences when taking a couple of classes at her university for audit. She realized one day that students perceived her as a student. They asked for her study notes, they asked if she knew what the professor was talking about and they asked her if she thought it was fair that the test and paper were due the same week. These encounters caused her to wonder if it would be possible to infiltrate the world of a student in order to understand her students better as their instructor.  

This type of ethnography is not without its ethical concerns. One of the first, was that Rebekah realized that she would have to mislead people in order to pull it off. She discussed this with her colleagues and with the university in order to come to terms with this conflict. In essence, she was going “undercover” and she wondered if that really possible for an ethnographer? To deal with this, she determined that she would not directly tell a lie. If asked what she did she would say that she was a writer who was interested in college life. There was no doubt however, that when conducting formal interviews with people, she would indeed identify herself as a researcher, explain her study and get written permission from the interviewee.

Another concern was the university’s role in the process. The question arose as to whether or not they were giving her permission to lie. Was this okay ethically? The university had discussions regarding the research project and developed guidelines that all felt were appropriate. In the end, the author took a sabbatical from her university, informed the appropriate administrative members, completed IRB agreements and launched into the world of a university freshman.

In the first half of the book she discusses the entrance process, life in the dorms, community and diversity. While the discussion about applying for college and attending orientation and moving into the dorms is full of interesting observations, I was particularly taken with the chapter on community and diversity. In this section, Rebekah notes that “One would be hard pressed to find words more widespread in university rhetoric than “community” and “diversity.” (p. 41). However, what she found in her experience was that it is very difficult to mandate these two endeavors. More over, it is difficult to create these two ideals when the organization itself systemically fights against it through the plethora of options provided to students.


  1. Do you believe that a researcher can adequately “infiltrate” the culture of student life as the author did for this project? Why or why not?
  2. What boundaries, if any, do you think the researcher/author crossed for research project? Would you consider doing something similar? Why or why not?
  3. In pages 55-58, the author discusses the “real community” of ego-centered networks.  After reading these pages, do you find this same pattern in your own life? What about with your students in your school setting?
  4. How do you think this sense of networks was created in our own doctoral cohort? Or was it?
  5. Do you think that her research at one university is reflective of all university college students? For those of you in higher education, do you see these same patterns on community and diversity played out in your environments?
  6. In regards to community and diversity, do you see these patterns at the high school, middle school and elementary level?

6 thoughts on “(Nathan) My freshman year, 1st half [Donna]

  1. I do find patterns of community based on who I am currently in contact with on a regular basis. Some of my support network are individuals I have known for a long time, but others I have met recently. I see very different patterns of real community for students, often dependent on their age and purpose for interacting with me. When I meet once a semester for advising, the freshman and first semester sophomores are taking a variety of classes and their social networks appear to be based on their current living arrangements and their contacts prior to coming to college. Transfer students taking the majority of their classes in their major tend to find a support network with other students in the major. The scheduling of major classes, both the days and times of the classes and the required sequence of courses based on prerequisites, simulates a cohort model. There are a significant number of courses only offered one semester per academic year and only have one section available. In our major, students tend to work collaboratively and reach out to each other, creating on overall strong sense of community. Engaging in Deaf community events is required in several courses so students also have shared experiences outside of the classroom experiences. The sense of community is very important to students’ overall experiences in college. I found it very interesting that students in this ethnographic study named 5 or 6 other students as their close friends and then also participated in larger social networks. As an observer of students, I don’t always see the full extent of the social networks among students, but I can observe when a student is somewhat isolated socially.

  2. Question #1: In the university setting, entering student culture as one of them is far more feasible than in K-12. There have been a few reports from or about journalists or police officers entering high schools as students, however those typically have a very specific intention and are a targeted investigation, instead of a true ethnography. I do think it is possible to enter student life at the university level, but where I think that an ethnographic study as a student would be invaluable insight into the lives of our primary and secondary students, it is nearly impossible.

    • I agree that this type of ethnography is better suited for the community college or university life. For it to work at the high school level you would have to have a very young or young looking researcher. It makes me wonder how actors who are in their mid to late 20’s prepare for their roles as high school students since they obviously are not part of that culture anymore. It would be very insightful to find out about the lives of primary and secondary students in this way.

  3. I think that she didn’t fully “‘infiltrate’ the culture of student life”, throughout chapters 2 and 3 she repeatedly alluded to the fact that she didn’t really become one of them. Her difference in demographics caused her to be an outsider from the onset. In chapter 4 she mentioned that she best fit in with “other partial outsiders” (p.67).

    As I was reading this I was thinking about how I would go about doing an ethnography in a large manufacturing company (would I work along side them, or stand back), I think that because I have worked in similar positions, and share a background and other interests with them I would be more readily accepted. She notes that the inclusion in social groups is most often tied with interests and hobbies.

    • James, this would be an interesting study to “infiltrate” a large manufacturing company. What would be the purpose of doing an ethnography on something like this? I think you are right that you would be able to work along side and be more readily accepted. I wouldn’t be able to do something like that. I think in Nathan’s ethnography that infiltrating a university at her age (middle age), especially as a freshman in the dorms, would be more difficult than doing so at a community college. As I look at my community college there is a broad spectrum of ages and a middle age woman would not be considered “different.”

  4. I would be able to watch and see how what the makeup of their day is.and how much do they use specific skills or knowledge sets.

    In Nathan’s study a lot of it centers around the experience of living on campus. I agree that she would be able to fit in better with the student population at a community college, but she would not have had the same insights into their lives.

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