Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nathan, Rebekah. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student

Nathan, Rebekah. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Written under a penname, My Freshman Year details the results of anthropologist Cathy Small going undercover and enrolling as a student at her university in 2002-2003. The impetus of the study came from her discovery that “After more than fifteen years of university teaching, I found that students had become increasingly confusing to me” (2). What she found isn’t particularly surprising: Students studied about an average of two hours per day (that includes reading, writing, researching—i.e., everything) (33), students worked jobs more often than in the past in order to pay for school and for other items (33), students rarely read for class unless the reading assignment had a direct bearing on their grades (43; 137-38), and most students rarely took advantage of co-curricular activities (much of which is a waste given the university resources that go into it) (47). Some of her discoveries were less predictable though. She learned that suite-style dorms are preferred by students for privacy reasons because, unlike previous generations, today’s students rarely shared rooms with siblings while growing up (52). Communal spaces in dorms and elsewhere on campus were underutilized because students preferred their own individual spaces, a trend bolstered by most of them having considerable material resources even in their dormrooms (53-54). In fact, Small found that in contrast to the rhetoric coming from her university about the importance of community and diversity, students tended to self-segregate themselves into individual networks of friends, most quite homogenous (57). As a result, international students were often baffled by the self-absorption and ignorance of American students (89). Alas, college didn’t seem to change such matters for the majority of students, as most class discussion was superficial (95), and academic matters were not the central focus of college life (100). Surprisingly, given these findings, Small suggests in the book that the best way a faculty member can deal with today’s students is compassion (135). Reflecting on how higher education took this path, with a special focus on the drop of taxpayer support for higher education and the consequent rise of tuition and other more corporate revenue streams, she writes: “It is easy to see how some aspects of contemporary student culture were formed. To reduce running debt even higher, most students must now work and go to school at the same time, which has the added corollary of compressing their academic activities into ever smaller time slots. To repay their debts, students are anticipating the need for immediate and lucrative employment after college, so they choose both ‘practical’ and ‘well-paying’ fields of study, resulting in the decline of majors such as philosophy, history, and English literature. The majors for which there have been the largest proportional increases in degrees conferred since 1980 include business, computer science, parks and recreation, protective services, and the health professions. These degree choices, in turn, funnel new budgetary allocations to these same departments and programs, one of many feedback processes that closes the loop between the paths of students and the direction of universities” (151). In short, an institution once devoted to the life of the mind now resembles a vocational high school. Overall, Small’s analysis of college student culture is thought-provoking, and seems to apply to students beyond large public universities. I can see much of the student behavior she describes at Ursuline. The question is what do we do about it? It’s clear that students are not getting as much out of college as they could, but much of that result is shaped by cultural and economic forces beyond the students. Do we dumb down the curriculum even further? Do we resist the forces that encourage students not to prepare for classes? Or do we attempt to hold the line of academic rigor? I suspect we’ll do all three a bit here and there and muddle through as best we can. As Small’s fellow students know, sometimes one can’t avoid a hard course. The book is available through OhioLINK.

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