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

My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan
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Jun 17, 08

bookshelves: non-fiction, education
Read in June, 2008

I have been reading this book for quite literally at least a year. I started reading it after I bought it (back in my basement apartment), it got lost for months behind the bed, and then got put back on the to-read shelf because it was too boring to read.

Since I am making a concerted effort to read the books I've been avoiding, I'm glad I finally finished this not-even-200-page book.

Totally unimpressed. It's theoretically an ethnography written by an anthropology professor who decides to go back to school as a freshman - living in dorms, etc. Aside from the fact that as an older woman living in a dorm she will NEVER be totally privy to the living situation, she does attend classes, conduct interviews, and try to partake of an authentic freshman year.

She did not live in a freshman dorm, but in an upperclassman dorm. She noted that there was not the 'community' feel (something she spends an entire chapter addressing) that she had expected from dorm life. At least at W&M, it was really only the freshman dorms that had an active social feel since that was the only time you were really attached at the hip to your hallmates. Since your first few weeks are spent desperately grasping at any familiarity, you end up closer to freshman dorm mates than you do to many other people. She makes the point that college 'community' is hard to establish due to the sheer amount of choice. Class schedules, clubs, jobs, and other commitments make it difficult to synchronize schedules in such a way to develop and maintain new friendships. In my experience, freshman dorms were an exception simply due to the tendency to huddle up with those same 20 girls before you reached out to other areas of the college. Perhaps some of these observations would have been different had she lived in a freshman dorm.

She does have some valuable insights into the professor/student relationship. She is in a unique position of having experienced both situations at the same university. She certainly makes some very valid observations about how students structure their work habits and schedules, and suggests some ways for professors to make their assignments more valuable - and actually get their students to DO them. I appreciated that she didn't just write off students as lazy, and she recognized some of the reasons that students end up eating in class, or not coming to office hours.

The last couple of chapters are simultaneously the most enlightening, and the most frustrating of the book. She presents her final thoughts on her experience, and makes suggestions for both students and professors. As a former student, the suggestions seemed to ring true, but I'm not sure how a professor would receive them. Her last chapter addresses her research and writing methods, and confirmed my problem with the book - while at the same time, justifying her frustrating approach.

The author seems struck by a guilty conscience while writing up her experiences. She explains that she felt that she could not identify herself, or the university, and did not feel comfortable using many of the comments and experiences due to the amount of deception involved in her situation. She did reveal her situation to several students (for reasons she explains in this chapter), as well as to anyone she formally surveyed. But much of her 'college experience' was spent in classes, in dorms, or observing in public areas. Without any sort of consent, she doesn't feel she is able to reproduce many of these comments and conversations.

While I recognize the ethical dilemma, I believe her writing really suffers for it. Little of her book reads from the point of view of a student, but instead as a removed observer. This remove is evident throughout the book, and is really why I couldn't bring myself to care much as I read it. A book written about the college experience seems like it should include more straightforward quotes as opposed to overly vague interpretations of aggregate observations.

Overall, disappointed. The book comes from a unique perspective, but doesn't seem to go far with it. I could see how some of the points made towards the end would be valuable - perhaps to professors, and much of the book might be an interesting read for parents. But as a student, I found little value. Perhaps the reverse (student as professor) would be of more value for a student's reading.
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