Tiny Pants's Reviews > My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student

My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan
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Sep 01, 10

bookshelves: cultural-studies, non-fiction, college-life, education
Read in September, 2010

This was a weird one but an easy read -- digestible in one long sitting. I was initially primed to dislike it intensely -- too much of the cutesy explanations of "going into the field" and how doing this in a familiar place was still just like doing so in a "remote village." Um anthropologists, when you do this, aren't you Othering, or exoticizing, or one of the many other "ing"s you are always trying to avoid? I think you are. Also, getting caught in the common room with a beer by the RA is not on par with Clifford Geertz's experiences in Bali. And I say this as someone who totally, completely, unequivocally loathes Clifford Geertz, and has zero interest in contributing to his hagiography.

That said, there are some fruitful insights in this book. The third chapter is the strongest: The author weaves together her expectations and her subsequent observations to come to some fascinating conclusions about student culture, administration plans, university "community", and diversity on campus. She does this using mixed methods, including surveys, interviews, and observation, but not participant observation.

The rest is sadly a bit too meta -- having apparently only realized after the fact the thicket of ethical quandaries that enrolling as an undergraduate at the university where you teach on your sabbatical year and almost never disclosing your status to your fellow students, the author winds up really picking and choosing amongst her data for bits she feels comfortable airing in public, and is often a bit elliptical in her descriptions as a result. It honestly blows my mind that she felt surprised when she later ran into a student she'd had a class with during her "freshman year" and the student is miffed that she was "fooled." Honey, what did you think you were doing?! This explains not only the iffy, chaotic texture of the book, but why she took the extra-bizarre step of publishing under a pseudonym (don't worry: if you've got the non-academic press edition, they out her name and institutional affiliation before you hit the title page).

In the end, most of her conclusions are probably fascinating to other professors and to those, like me, who are working toward becoming professors, but not to a general reader. We get to learn a lot about why students see gray areas when it comes to academic integrity, why they don't often do their reading, the numerous demands on their time, and so on. It is what it is, and it is useful, but much like Coming of Age in New Jersey, this is mostly a textbook in why participant observation is not worth it.
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