A sneak peek at student life

A professor goes undercover at her own school to learn what makes students tick

A middle-aged anthropology professor matriculates as a freshman at her own university. It's a brilliant conceit, full of possibility - and dubious ethics.

Rebekah Nathan, a pseudonym, (she went back to school "undercover") proves a surprisingly compassionate observer of undergraduate life. At the end of her freshman year, she abandons her dorm room and returns to the office with a real appreciation for the challenges of contemporary studenthood.

Nathan finds students weighed down by financial pressures and practical concerns. The college life she experiences while a freshman is much less romantic than the one she had imagined as a professor: "I have always shared the professor's worldview that what we do is regularly mind-altering and life-changing," she confesses.

But instead of students immersed in learning for the sake of learning, lecture topics regularly spilling out of class into erudite collegial discussions on the green, she finds budding professionals angling for well-paying jobs.

The last chapter, "Lessons from My Year as a Freshman," offers the clearest analysis of how the "careerist" student has come to be. It's anthropology at its best: accessible, illuminating, contextual.

Nathan's conclusion: If today's students have become players in a marketplace drama, it's because they are very much the products of a society and university driven by market values. As the number of people attending college continues to surge and federal funding declines, students are forced to take on debt and part-time work, eating into the time they can devote to academics.

From the outset Nathan says her goal is to explore the disconnect she feels between herself and her students, whose "bizarre" behaviors - sleeping and eating in class, failing to take notes or attend office hours - she finds troubling. She's less interested in her students' sex lives - which have absorbed many writers and took two chapters of anthropologist Michael Moffatt's seminal tale of his journey into college life decades earlier.

It's a type of fieldwork few anthropologists - even those who spend their lives studying foreign people in far-off, uncomfortable places - have been eager to tackle. Colleagues call Nathan crazy and, a bit crazily, compare her project to the 1960 book "Black Like Me," where author John Howard Griffin temporarily turns his skin black to experience life in the Deep South.

That comparison, she writes, "said volumes about the psychological distance educators perceive between their world and that of their students."

During her first semester Nathan lives at her unnamed state school, returning home only for the occasional weekend or holiday. She adopts some trappings of the freshman - flip flops and a backpack - but when asked says simply that she is a "returning" student. Nathan inhabits a dorm room, sharing four toilet stalls with 70 women, takes a full course load (five classes, she drops to two second semester to accommodate her research), and pays her own way - "the most expensive year of fieldwork I have ever undertaken."

"My Freshman Year" is a slim volume that should be widely accessible and eminently readable. But Nathan can't seem to decide if her audience is academic or lay. Falling somewhere between scholarship and story, it never entirely succeeds at either. As anthropology it feels unsophisticated, as narrative it feels heavy.

The early chapters read as exhaustive observation and equally tiresome interpretation. There is the elaborately described dorm door art - "Two residents of the room bending over and sticking out their rear ends (clad in jeans) at the camera" - that, in Nathan's eyes, conveys: "friendliness, youth, freedom, sexiness, sociability, irreverence, fun, humor, intensity, eccentricity, lack of limits, spontaneity."

Mary Louise Pratt, a literary theorist, once wrote that ethnography - the anthropologist's medium - "tends to be surprisingly boring." "How," she wondered, "could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books?"

It's hard not to feel that way about Nathan. If only her narrative were woven with fewer seams, slowed less by remedial asides on her discipline.

But the findings - and the way they reflect larger cultural truths - are more than enough to keep a reader interested. She plumbs themes like the American obsession with individuality and choice, and how it has undermined the university's - and the individual's - quest for community. She critiques her own school for failing to achieve true diversity. Students from all backgrounds attend, but they don't mix.

Nathan's best resources - or "informants" as the anthropologist in her insists on calling them - are international students truly puzzled by what they find here: surface friendliness, ignorance. "American students ... are so open about wanting to get together, but they never take my phone number and they never contact me again," says one Japanese woman. Another student recalls being asked: "Do they dub American TV programs into British?"

Nathan confessed her real identity to the international students, who provided some of her most interesting material. Had she been open with everyone, perhaps her book would have been stronger - and she could have preempted charges of fuzzy ethics.

For educators and parents far removed from student life, Nathan offers a glimpse into the undergraduate world and insight into trends that have changed it in recent years. For those closer to the college experience, it's amusing to see the details that captivate a professor: a dorm room loft described as if an exotic artifact.

Nathan writes: "The ultimate test of my analysis will be undergraduate students, who can decide for themselves if they recognize their lives and their world in this book."

Whatever her other achievements, by that measure it seems unlikely Nathan will do much better than the middling B average she earned during her freshman year.

Teresa Méndez is on the Monitor staff.

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