Monday, March 06, 2006

Booknote: My Freshman Year

Title: My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student.
Author: Rebekah Nathan
Publication Information: Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005
186 pages, including notes, index, and references.
Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Higher Education, anthropology

I had read about this book in a couple of places, so when we bought it for our library, I was intrigued and picked it up. It is a very interesting look at undergraduates in a large American university. The author took a year off, and then she registered as a freshman, taking a typical load of classes as well as being involved in things freshmen do. Though she is an older woman (in her fifties), she passed just fine. Students just took her for another nontraditional student (some thought she was some divorcee with a tragic past).

The writing style is good. The book itself is pretty engaging and interesting. What she learns is that undergraduates have their own culture and norms. In a way, this is not new, but the way in which she discovers all the rituals is fascinating. One of the key ideas was the concept of a student's personal network, which they often already bring to campus. This network is made up of friends and acquaintances. Some bring the network to school in the form of high school classmates, and then they build upon it in college. Others build it when they enter college, but the point is that this is the student's life center. It also explains why so many university attempts to get students to mingle through diversity initiatives are doomed to failure. If you are not part of the network, you may as well not exist. The whole dynamic of who eats dinner with who as seen in the dining hall further illustrates this.

I personally found interesting the chapter on international students because it gives a glimpse of American students that Americans themselves don't see. It is fascinating to see American habits through their eyes because these are things that Americans don't even think about. It is also sad how foreign students fall victim to the false American friendly veneer. What these students often found is that American students were not interested in meeting people from around the world. Some of it may be reflective of American individualism, but a lot of it is just plain lack of interest. In fact, Nathan writes that "the single biggest complaint international students lodged about U.S. students was, to put it bluntly, our ignorance. As informants described it, by 'ignorance' they meant the misinformation and lack of information that Americans have both about other countries and about themselves" (84). As someone from another country, albeit a U.S. colony, I can certainly understand that. In this chapter, Nathan makes a small list of questions that American students actually asked international students, when they bothered to ask at all. To say these are embarassing, or should be, to Americans is to put it mildly. I am posting a couple to illustrate:
  • "Is Japan in China?"
  • "Is North Korea or South Korea that has a dictator?"
  • "Where exactly is India?" "Do you still ride elephants?"
And my personal favorite (I laughed when I read this one):
  • "Do they dub American TV programs into British?" (84)
Nathan learns a lot also about how students see the faculty, including her. As a result, she gains insights into her classroom, now able to answer questions about why students often seem unprepared for class or seem to do the minimum effort. A lot of it has to do that students do figure out as soon as possible how to do the least effort and stay in good shape. College management is an art and science for students. Overall, the book provides a look at American higher education and its students. We get to see this rite of passage through the eyes of students, and we have to ask, what exactly is a university education supposed to do?

For readers worried about any possible research ethics questions, Nathan, a pseudonym, does explain her methods in the book as well. Overall, I highly recommend this book.

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