Rebekah Nathan is the pseudonym chosen by a university professor to protect her identity, and that of her school, for this unusual ethnographic study. After fifteen years of teaching, Nathan feels disconnected from her students, and finds that her colleagues often have the same questions she does about student behavior. Why don't they do the reading, attend office hours, or engage in class discussion? Why do they feel it's ok to eat in class, arrive late, or even come to class in pajamas? Why are they more likely to cheat?
So, at over fifty, she decides to 'go undercover'. She applies to attend classes as an undergraduate at the same school (which she calls 'AnyU') using only her high school transcript, and after she's accepted, reserves a room in one of the freshmen dorms. This is the story of her freshmen year. Her identity morphs from professor to student, with an attendant surreal change in perspective. She observes her classmates and the other students in her dorm, and conducts formal research and interviews as well, comparing it to the time she spent doing ethnographic research in a remote third-world village.
Nathan's observations are fascinating. I kept chuckling and trying to read passages out loud to my husband (note to self: he hates that). She reveals a number of disconnects in university life. Students receive dual messages: obey the rules, but it's ok to disobey them if you don't make it obvious. The administration's view of why students are there differs fundamentally from students' own goals: AnyU thinks they are there to get an education, while students are primarily there to have fun and prepare themselves for a career. Goals which both administration and the student body think they share, like advancing 'community', fall down due to fundamentally different world views; each party has a different concept of 'community' and they don't realize they're not talking about the same thing. Finally Nathan discusses the strategies that 'successful' students, juniors and seniors, use to succeed; how they 'manage' their schedules, their professors, their workloads, and the competing demands of jobs, internships, and studying.
I loved the book; it was insightful and rang so very true with my own college experience. I predict this will become a must-read for much of the university community. I wish Nathan had explored more of her experience of transformation. If she had been more personal in her perspective, this could have been a popular best-seller; as it is the tone and treatment are too academic for the wider community. Those currently or formerly residing in ivory towers will love it. Highly recommended.