My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student
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After fifteen years of teaching anthropology at a large university, Rebekah Nathan had become baffled by her own students. Their strange behavior—eating meals at their desks, not completing reading assignments, remaining silent through class discussions—made her feel as if she were dealing with a completely foreign culture. So Nathan decided to do what anthropologists do when confused by a different culture: Go live with them. She enrolled as a freshman, moved into the dorm, ate in the dining hall, and took a full load of courses. And she came to understand that being a student is a pretty difficult job, too. Her discoveries about contemporary undergraduate culture are surprising and her observations are invaluable, making My Freshman Year essential reading for students, parents, faculty, and anyone interested in educational policy.
for a sport, or living off campus, we can see that even with the thousands of students at a state university, very few students will have created college paths that cross frequently. Even good friends who have chosen to live together will have different majors, different courses, different clubs, and jobs that define divergent paths in their day-to-day lives. Two implications follow from what can be called our “over optioned” public university system. The first is that there is little that is
living arrangements at any time, people do choose, and choose again. The same is true of most aspects of university life. Thus, in my very small sample, the majority of students I interviewed had had at least two different majors, switching from one to seven times. Most also had joined and left at least one organization or club, quitting because the organization no longer appealed to them or the meeting bumped heads with another, more important activity. In this light, the university becomes,
to be the larger proportion of students of color who did not stay to eat. But it left me with the uncomfortable feeling that I was witnessing the effect of a “white space”—which I had never noticed because I am white—where people of color could eat alone publicly, or eat with people different from themselves, or go home to their rooms. Perhaps, many times, the dorm room just seems the most comfortable option, and this may have explained some of the missing 40 percent of minority students in the
elementary school or grade school. The teacher tells you exactly which chapters to study, and then you review just those chapters. The advisers tell you the courses to take and approve your schedule. Sometimes it’s annoying. Students here have lots of exams, really small quizzes. The quizzes make you study. You learn a little bit for the quiz, then you learn a little bit different for the next quiz. But people forget from week to week. Once the quiz is over, they forget.... Really, I wonder at
Don’t students come to college to learn? Is college for most students simply about getting a degree, as some cynics might suggest? I decided to broach these subjects by asking students directly, but anonymously, whether, if given the chance, they would “take the degree and run.” I posted this graffiti question: “Be honest. If the university would hand you a bachelor’s degree right now, provided you paid for all your credits and left the dorms, would you take the degree and leave? Thirty-eight