Rebekah Nathan (a pseudonym) decided to do something about it: a fiftysomething anthropology prof at a large state university, she chose to become a freshman all over again -- move into the dorm, eat the cafeteria food, sleep in and cut classes, the whole AnyU experience. In My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (Cornell Univ. Press), Nathan presents some intriguing findings.
Administrators harp about the value of "community" -- but students value their individuality to such a degree, follow such diverse schedules and cram their rooms with so many of the comforts of home that there is no way they're going to cohere into a community. Resident advisors try to foster community, but dorm room door decorations reveal a subculture that values friendship and freedom from constraints above all else. (Forget about family or, uh, academics.) Besides, students don't have time to study because they're too busy working -- and they're working because tuition went up an inflation-adjusted 25 percent in the '90s.
Nathan gained newfound respect for all the supposed slackers on campus when, one semester, she had eight different instructors in five courses to please while unaccustomed to the shortcuts experienced seniors use in practicing "the art of college management." On the other hand, the vast majority of college students have cheated in a class once; roughly one-sixth of them habitually cheat. Rationalizations are rampant.
Nathan acts too much like an anthropologist at times -- she occasionally piles up too many statistics from her field studies, and there's an anticlimactic coda with much hand-wringing about her own methodology. (Have I invaded my fellow students' privacy?)
But she takes heart in the minorities of students who still take traditional academic pursuits seriously. And she has learned compassion: Her class is not the only one her students are taking, after all. The criteria they use in attempting to cut necessary corners are understandable, if not always pristine in practice.
Yet despite the failure of academic approaches to building community -- those let's-all-read-the-same-text-in-freshman-seminars programs don't work, Nathan finds -- My Freshman Year really is a book that every college instructor should read and discuss.