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.
- 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?
- What boundaries, if any, do you think the researcher/author crossed for research project? Would you consider doing something similar? Why or why not?
- 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?
- How do you think this sense of networks was created in our own doctoral cohort? Or was it?
- 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?
- In regards to community and diversity, do you see these patterns at the high school, middle school and elementary level?