Not as Important as We Think

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

In the book

Rebekah Nathan. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, Cornell University Press, 2005.

the author, a professor of cultural anthropology at a public university in the USA, reports that she felt alienated from her students after 15 years of teaching.  During a year-long sabbatical, she decided to study the undergraduate student culture using the ethnographic methods of her profession. So, she went undercover. She enrolled as a full-time freshman at her university and moved into the dorm. This book records her observations and analyses. She sought to protect the anonymity of those observed by labeling her institution AnyU and publishing the book under a pseudonym.

Aside: Nathan sought to structure her research and writing to follow acceptable professional practices and her own ethical guidelines. However, the book did generate controversy within the social science and education research communities. It was soon determined who she was and where she taught.

In My Freshman Year, Nathan describes facets of college life from the standpoint of a student immersed in them–from her participation, from her observations in the wild, and from formal interviews she conducted. The chapters focus on several aspects of the experience:

  • Welcome week and orientation
  • Life in the dorms
  • Community and diversity
  • How international students see us
  • Academics
  • Students’ management of college experience

I address each of these with a few comments or quotes from the book. (I wrote these comments in 2006 when I read the book.  I edited the comments for this posting.)

Welcome Week

Welcome Week was a culture shock for Nathan, who was accustomed to her adult world as a professor. Even though she tried to “dress down” like the students, she ended up dressed like their parents. She had difficulty following the native student dialect when spoken in the native habitat–the unfamiliar slang delivered at high speed. Although alcohol was allowed in private dorm rooms for those over 21, she got busted by the Resident Assistants for taking a beer into a public lounge.

Nathan observes that this week was the last time that organized student activities in the dorms drew much student participation.

Life in the Dorms

According to Nathan’s observations, the students had a massive amount of stuff crammed into two-person dorm rooms and the public areas of the dorm were seldom used. Clearly, the building had been designed for a different era or without understanding of how students really lived or both.

Nathan reported the great difference in the official values promoted by the university through Resident Assistants and Residence Hall Directors in meetings and on bulletin board displays and the values that students conveyed with their own door and wall displays, graffiti, and conversations. The latter gave considerable attention to image, sensuality, sexuality, partying, and other such aspects of student life.

The author observed how busy students were, with their schedule filled with classes, organizational activities, personal social events, and, in most cases, part-time jobs.

The author found little sense of a broader community on campus, a situation of concern to educators and the public. However, she determines that this is, in part, a result of the wide range of choices that students have among academic programs, courses, organizations, living arrangements, meal plans, etc. The author says:

… the university becomes for individual students, an optional set of of activities and a fluid set of people whose paths are ever-shifting. Seen from the level of the institution, “community” is a lofty ideal but with few common activities, rituals, or even symbols to bind together its diverse inhabitants.

Community and Diversity

Nathan observed that efforts at community building were unsuccessful. The Freshman Seminar at her university failed despite sometimes brilliant efforts by the faculty who led them. The majority of the students did not cooperate by doing the readings for this class. The students saw the class as abstract and irrelevant to their lives and their future careers and were resentful of it being required.

There were many volunteer activities meant to draw participation and build community. These, in general, were not successful at drawing more than a handful of participants.

Nathan felt this low participation rate resulted, in part, from the individualism that is a facet of American culture–and from the broad range of choices and the material abundance of stuff that most student had. For example, most students did not attend a “movie night” or a group viewing of the Super Bowl in a public area despite heavy promotion. Many students just stayed in their rooms and watched a movie or the game on their TVs with their social network of friends.

Nathan observed that campus social life tended to be built around small, overlapping, self-selected social networks, groups of “homeys” consisting of some members who were friends from high school and that tended to be somewhat stable throughout the college experience regardless of the students’ changing majors, living arrangements, etc. These tended to be impervious to efforts to build wider communities.

Of course, not everyone was the same. There were groups that had distinctive activities and cultures that differed somewhat from the mainstream–fraternities and sororities, Christian organizations, ROTC units, ethnically based organizations for minority
groups, etc.

Although AnyU, as an aggregate, was quite diverse racially and ethnically, the groups of friends around which most social life was built were much less diverse. (As noted above, these consisted partly of friends from high school which were not diverse because the areas from which they came were not diverse.) The social network groups consisting of mostly whites tended to be solidly white in the great majority of cases. Members of minority groups tended more often to be in mixed groups than whites did. This did not necessarily reflect overt racism so much as it was an expression about the “values of individualism and choice, materialism, and the realities of U.S. demographics”. As Nathan noted that there is “a reality about diversity and community in university culture that does not match its rhetoric”.

How International Students See Us

Nathan interviewed international students formally to get their views on the American college experience. In many ways, the students appreciated their studies in the US, but some reported diffciulties. The following quotes from the book illustrate these:

Meeting and befriending Americans in more than a superficial way presented challenges to many international students. … International students learned quickly that being a student, being a dorm mate, being a classmate–none of it automatically qualifies you as a “member of the community,” that is, a person others seek out for activities. …

Many students expressed surprise at the dull reception they received from American students about their experiences and backgrounds….

… most foreign students notice…there is an informality to the U.S. classroom that some, including professors, would interpret as bordering on disrespect. …

Although American professors and the American classroom received high marks for openness and helpfulness, they received mixed reviews on course content, including its rigor, organization, and modes of evaluation….

Most international students were used to a less pre-digested academic diet….

Still some students appreciated the American grading system, with smaller, non-comprehensive exams and a syllabus, serving almost as a contract that laid out exactly how tests, papers, and presentations would bear on the final grade…

The single biggest complaint international students lodged about U.S. students was, to put it bluntly, our ignorance. … by “ignorance” they mean the misinformation and lack of information that Americans have both about other countries and about themselves. … most Americans…are woefully ignorant of the world scene. …

In general, students from outside the United States warmly appreciated the American educational system as well as the spirit of the American college students. The criticisms that they did have, though, were pointed and focused. Taken together, they amounted to nothing less than a theory of the relationship among ignorance, intolerance, and ethnocentrism in this country, one that international eyes saw bordering on profound self-delusion. … one German stated succinctly what many students had communicated at greater length: “Americans seem to think they have the perfect place to live, the best country, the best city. I hear that all the time. I used to think it was just from the politicians, but now I see it is from the regular people, too. The patriotism thing here really bothers me.”


In the chapter on academics, Nathan speaks to issues that most professors confront every day. Again, I selected quotes that convey the points I considered most important:

…the students…hold unconscious norms about classroom behavior that focus on “equality.” that is, on the importance of being the same as the other students—one of “us.” … Equality in the classroom usually amounts to “invisibility”; don’t be too noticeable is the rule, whether that means acting like an outstanding student or a troublemaker. It is fine to do well in class, performing better than others, but only if you do it unobtrusively….

Despite the fact that classes rarely function as communities, this ideal is powerful within the American classroom—at least for teachers. A good class is often thought of as one in which students speak repeatedly, and the teacher’s role…focuses on the elicitation and clarification of each student’s viewpoint….

In actuality, though, the teacher’s role was less often to referee fervent debates than to get people to speak at all….

…I was struck with the realization that, despite official assertions about the university as a free marketplace of ideas, the classroom doesn’t often work that way in practice. Ideas are rarely debated, and even more rarely evaluated. Most classroom discussion, when it does occur, could be described as a sequential expression of opinion, spurred by a question or scenario devised by the teacher, which is subject to little or no commentary. …

The time before and after classes, when teachers were not within earshot, was instructive. …

When academic assignments were mentioned, the discourse converged on a couple of main themes. Students either talked about reactions and comparisons of evaluations received…or they focused on the effort or attention given to academic assignments—usually emphasizing the lack thereof….

The boundaries of discourse seemed clear. Outside the classroom, and outside of specific academically and professionally oriented clubs or events, students just didn’t appear to talk among themselves about the ideas presented in their classes or the issues of the day….

Not only did ideas and issues play a limited role in college life, but classes did too. While most students I interviewed readily admitted that they were in college to learn, they also made clear that classes, and work related to classes, were a minor part of what they were learning.

…The great majority of students saw elective social activities and interpersonal relationships as the main context for learning….

The biggest attraction of college for these students was clearly “college culture,” which…seemed to have very little to do with either intellectual life or formal instruction. … Classes…were described…as the “price one has to pay” to participate in college culture…

…This was disconcerting to me as a professor because I have always shared the professor’s worldview that what we do is regularly mind-altering and life-changing. Surely, I thought, there are many courses that truly “make a difference” in students’ lives, and as a student, I decided to sample one of them personally. … Much to my surprise, three different students mentioned the same course…”Sexuality”…

The first day of the course was like an underground meeting….

We soon saw that this was no ordinary class. The middle-aged professor strode into the room late, like a rock star, as students waited in anticipation. His course introduction, like his lectures to follow, was peppered with taboo words and intimate personal stories…

In the end, I saw the worth of this course, as well as its student appeal. The “perfect” class may not have been perfect from the academician’s point of view, but it melded the presentation of ideas, information, and theory…with essential components of undergraduate culture…

Students’ Management of College Experience

Nathan observes that one of the biggest emphases during the orientation sessions and many dorm meetings were time management and stress reduction. The standard advice was that it took 2 hours of out-of-class study time for each in-class hour and that a good way to organize was something like a day planner or erasable calendar. She did find that this, like a lot of the official line advocated by the university administration, did not fully match the way things worked on the student side. Nathan writes:

In my first semester I took five courses with five different instructors. Two courses had some sort of discussion or lab requirement, each with it own teacher, and one class had an out-of-class tutor. This meant that in a single semester there were eight different people who made rules or created structures that I had to respond to as a student. Each wanted us to access readings, or prepare papers, or communicate with him or her according to a different protocol. As is typical in a large state university, none of the instructors coordinated assignments or schedules with one another or even with a master university schedule.

… So attending a special film showing, or taking a class trip, or even getting to a professor’s office hours often meant sacrificing some other commitment.

I found that I needed not only a day planner and large erasable calendar to arrange my week but also the counsel of some savvy upperclassmen who had figured out how to deal with the diverse and unpredictable demands on a college freshman. … Many of the academically most successful juniors and seniors I interviewed believe that they did, indeed, need to control their time to create a balanced life.

What they had figured out, however, was that one could not or would not do this simply by “grinding” and jumping through the academic hoops of five to eight professors in each of sixteen semesters. The key to managing time was … by shaping schedules, taming professors, limiting workload.

Shaping schedules means trying to arrange your schedule to have big blocks of time for study, leisure, and work. Sometimes it means taking a class more because it fits in the perfect schedule than because it is of great interest. It also sometimes means trying to have a good proportion of undemanding courses that required little work to balance out the more difficult courses.

Taming professors meant learning how to “play” professors to get what you want as a student. “You get what you want from classes by establishing and using a personal relationship with your teachers.”

Limiting workload usually means

to restrict the amount of time and effort one spends on a course by doing no more than is necessary. On several levels, students assess what is needed to get by. Depending on the course and the instructor, they decide whether to buy the book, whether to go to class, whether to do the readings in a given week, and how much effort to put into assignments.

… cutting or “ditching” class is a strategy adopted by a number of students to free up more time in their lives.

Most successful students do not undertake this strategy too frequently or without regard to the class. Classes that require attendance a part of the course grade, and in which the instructor takes attendance, are rarely cut. By contrast, in classes where attendance is expected but not required, the frequency of absenteeism rises with each of the following characteristics: the class is large; the class is boring; tests are based on readings rather than the lectures; grades depend upon papers rather than tests; the class is early in the morning; the class is on Friday.

Nathan goes on to say that the biggest way to limit workload is to limit preparation for class. Successful students learn how to pick and choose which readings are really important to read on the assigned schedule, which can be relegated to cram sessions near an exam, and which can be neglected altogether. She notes that “this kind of strategic corner-cutting is what students learn in college.”

Nathan observes:

Low preparation time … is clearly a factor in producing less than high-quality work, but the reverse is true as well: low-quality work creates time, making room for other activities in one’s schedule that have priority. It is this trade-off that I observed among fellow undergraduates: massive shortcuts–particularly in courses that a student considers “busywork” or irrelevant to his or her career–enabling students to shape their lives and their time more fully.

Of course, “cheating” is another way of limiting workload. Nathan writes:

The national literature is consistent and undeniable. College students cheat. At least half engage in serious cheating, more than two-thirds admit to cheating on a test, and more than three-quarters have cheated in some capacity.

…Cheating was a active part of college culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and it remains so in the twenty-first…

Evidence from national studies suggest than an increasing number of students question whether certain behavior–such as getting questions from former students…–qualify as cheating….

Most students do not consider working together on homework assignments as really cheating. They also feel it is not a bad thing to cheat on work that they considered to be busywork that was irrelevant to their lives and careers.

Although, as a professor, Nathan “finds it tempting to pin the reason for increased cheating on the character failings of the students”, as a cultural anthropologist, she understands that cheating “must be interpreted in its lived contexts.” As she notes,

most of the time, most students don’t cheat.

… some cheating seems impelled not by moral laxity but by competing cultural values. While some students value honesty, they may be reluctant to turn in another student for cheating…or turn down a classmate’s request for help on a homework. The most frequent types of cheating include those that seem to value student mutual aid and reciprocity over scrupulousness…

Other examples of the most common forms of cheating involve buying time or cutting scholastic corners, such as making false excuses to gain extra time on tests or papers, adding phony bibliographic sources; and copying from a source into a paper without footnoting.

…Students nationwide cheat less as they move up in year, suggesting to me that as they become more skilled in manipulating the other elements of the system, their need to cheat dissipates.

In this light, increases in contemporary rate of cheating reflect not only students’ personal ethics but all the shifting societal tides that churn the waters through which students navigate. Political forces, for instance, may determine tuition rates, which decide how many hours a student must work at a job, which affects the amount of time left for coursework, which in turn influences the extent to which cheating becomes an more attractive option.

Lessons Learned

Nathan found it valuable for her, a professor, to undertake the “cross-cultural travel” by going into the world of the undergraduate. She writes:

Most professors have no idea what a dorm room looks like, or about the routes of the campus bus system, or the cost of books, tuition, and housing. Most students have no understanding of faculty rank, how the university actually functions, or how professors advance in their careers. They have little appreciation for the after-hours work that goes into staging the courses they are taking, and no inkling of what teachers are required to do besides teach.

This kind of ignorance, as international students argued, leads to misperceptions and sometimes intolerance at both ends. Students and faculty encounter each other in distinct and hierarchical roles, and this conditions the way we experience each other, It is easy to see students as irresponsible, deceitful, and self-indulgent, just as it is easy to see teachers as officious, unkind, and self-important. …

I also find myself interpreting the undergraduate culture I lived through the eyes of a seasoned academic in order to discover not just its lived realities but its potentials. There are many things I understand about undergraduate culture that, when I reflect beyond my relativist anthropological frame, I don’t like. I cannot ignore the observations of international students, or the blindness about racism, or the normalization of cheating.

As Nathan reentered her faculty role, she observes:

It is the summer after my freshman year and I am once again “the teacher.” …

I look at my old syllabus, my old notes, my old assignments, thinking how I will update my course. It is not the content that I notice most but the tacit assumptions that are built in to the fabric of the course. My syllabus and other choices grew out of long experience in teaching. I typically teach this class at a popular midday time on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and follow it or precede it with office hours to encourage visits. …

So it always comes as a surprise to me that students appear clueless about what happened in the last class, that only a minority of them have done the reading assigned, and that almost no undergraduates ever show up for my office hours unless perhaps they are failing.

I see now what I didn’t see before. In the time between my Tuesday and Thursday classes in introductory anthropology I have taught only one other class, and I have spent at least some time on Wednesday arranging my Thursday class presentation. By contrast, my students have had at least four other classes in between, maybe more, and they have completed many other reading, and writing assignments in the interim, in addition, perhaps, to working a job and attending residence hall or club programs.

If they are like me as a student, they feel virtuous that they’re present for class, that they remembered to bring the right notebook, and that they managed to catch a bus that has delivered them on time.

With respect to reading assignments, given her increased understanding of student practices Nathan writes:

The answer to the problem of reading that I now favor is to hone the assignments to those I will actually employ in my classes while at the same time creating new classroom forums for making direct and immediate use of the readings I seriously want my students to prepare. I could see why my former “solutions” had not changed their behavior. Like many of my teaching and administrative colleagues, I often design solutions to student problems that do not address the actual source of the problem. The miscalculations come from faulty assumptions concerning what good students do and how they organize their academic lives.

In other comments on ineffective solutions to problems, Nathan writes:

Most professors and administrators overestimate the role that academics plays in student culture, and as a result they magnify the impact of teachers and classes on student life and decisions. For instance, it is widely assumed that more contact time between professors and students will raise student retention rates, and that faculty counsel and advice is an essential part of a student’s freshman transition. But at AnyU, when in 2002, a graduate student researcher queried freshmen abut their first-year and their reasons for continuing as students, “faculty” was one of the least frequently mentioned reasons. …

There is no doubt that special professors do make a difference in the life of specific students, but overall, I’d suggest, student-teacher relationships play a relatively minor role in the experience of undergraduate life in a large university.

… Educational policy, I believe, cannot afford to rely on inaccurate or idealized versions of what students are, and student issues should be analyzed with a fuller understanding of how they are embedded in student culture.

Nathan writes that student culture, like American society at large, is endemically conformist. However, there are some undergraduate subcultures that critique or even reject the mainstream culture. Sometimes these differing cultures are present in the conflicts within a single individual. She feels these have “the potential of challenging the more troublesome aspects of undergraduate culture.” She later writes:

When I contest certain aspects of undergraduate culture–by refusing to “dumb down” a course, say, and make it an “easy A”–I feel that I am aligning myself with students, and the internal dialogues of students, that already exist in undergraduate culture. Similarly, in forewarning my students that I will seriously pursue instances of cheating on exams, I do so with the understanding and specific acknowledgments that the great majority of students don’t cheat the great majority of the time. In enforcing such policies, I feel that I am protecting my students, not persecuting them, and making sure that the ninety-five out of one hundred of my students who have taken the time to read and study for a test are not betrayed by my lack of vigilance. I exclude behaviors such as doing homework together or discussing paper topics as “cheating”, because fighting the natural reciprocity of student life seems an unwarranted and, to me, disagreeable battle.

In some reflections on how the modern university got the way it is, Nathan writes:

One of the most consistent strategies for making up funding shortfalls has been tuition increases…..

At the same time, students constitute an increasingly less elite economic segment of society, which means the average student is poorer than those in the past…The result has been debt–a huge amount of debt that college students are incurring for the sake of their education–and a sharp rise in the percentage of borrowers among full-time undergraduates. … students are increasingly attracted to majors with clearly associated job titles … undergraduates’ priorities include getting good grades and positioning themselves for the labor force…

It is easy to see how some aspects of contemporary student culture formed. To reduce running debt even higher, most students now work and go to school at the same time, which has the added corollary of compressing their academic activities into ever smaller time slots. To repay their debts, students are anticipating the need for immediate and lucrative employment after college…

…The career focus in higher education has its upside as well. Cursing the ties between college, jobs, and upward mobility is a privilege of the elite. … a college degree can serve as a vehicle for economic mobility… for an ever wider economic segment of the U.S. public …

But there are important warning signs as well…. The market-driven university is likely to experience the same pitfalls as businesses and marketplaces. Businesses do not gear themselves toward those without money….We are increasingly seeing the poorer students retreating to the community colleges, leaving the public four-year university less diverse… Degree programs tightly geared to the marketplace … are likely to bust and boom with the fickleness of the times. A university held to market principles will try … to produce more for less, particularly in times of declining revenues.

My Final Comments

In reading this book and in looking back through it to write these comments, I saw many interesting observations and insights. To a person who lived in the dorm for four years as an undergraduate and who has been a faculty member for 23 years, much was unsurprising. But I needed to be reminded of it.

I can see how often as faculty we can live in a world of wishful thinking about how things are. And in a world where we think we are more important than we really are.

A question is, as always perhaps, when to go with the flow of the culture and when to be a force for change, attempting to help divert the culture in a different, better direction. How can we be positive forces and not cynical individuals who retreat into our offices, giving up on society?  What structural changes need to be made in colleges and their societal context to improve the effectiveness of college education?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *