Back to school for some hard knocks

My Freshman Year
December 16, 2005

It is 11.25am on a Tuesday morning in term time. You are only ten minutes into the seminar but already you have reached a dead end. No one seems able or willing to answer any of your questions. There is silence. Complete and utter pin-dropping silence. What is the problem? It is not as though the assignment was arduous. All the class was required to do was read a clearly written five-page article on a straightforward topic. And no one can complain that they have not been able to find the article. It was carefully photocopied and distributed only the week before.

At such moments, I have occasionally been overcome by a desperate desire to confess to my silent flock that I am completely baffled and saddened by their attitude, so baffled and saddened that I am thinking of giving up my career as an academic. Is it really my job to be your motivator? Why can't any of you do an hour of preparation? And why, for God's sake, do you all look so terminally bored? What has always held me back from such self-serving outbursts is the comfortable background knowledge that in only 45 minutes more I shall be slumped alongside half a dozen colleagues who have been through similar experiences. "You think your lot are bad. You should see my second years."

But now all is lost. No one who reads My Freshman Year will ever again be able to stare at those rows of silent faces with quite the same degree of righteous exasperation. For this modestly presented book is a devastating report from the other side of the lines, an account of the realities of student life that generates real understanding and genuine compassion.

"Rebekah Nathan" is the pseudonym for a fiftysomething American professor of anthropology at a large state university who, upon realising that she no longer understood the behaviour and attitudes of her students, decided to bring her ethnographic skills to bear on her incomprehension by enrolling as a first-year "freshman" student in another part of her own university.

It was a tough assignment. Our intrepid researcher immersed herself fully in every aspect of student life, moving into a student bedroom, joining student clubs, taking a full course load, participating in games of volleyball and tag football, and sitting around for hours late at night talking about the meaning of life with her new friends.

Now I have read her findings, I realise that when I next confront a seminar group I will have to recognise that their very presence together in the room is something of a minor miracle. Academics simply take their own location for granted: they are not aware of the complicated pathways and timetabling arrangements that students have to negotiate to be in the right place at the right time. Nor does the average teacher realise that students who fail to prepare properly are probably delinquent because they simply lack the time to be otherwise. Nathan found that the average daily class preparation time was about two hours. But students were also spending less than two hours a day relaxing and socialising. So what were they doing with their "extra" time? They were either working at paid jobs (an increasing necessity for most students) or involved in professional clubs or volunteer work, which they thought might provide some career benefits. Few were just slacking. Such tight timetables demanded strategies for coping with classes and with professors. It was important to avoid early classes, to choose at least some courses that guaranteed "easy As", to recognise those classes where you could get away with a minimum of prepa-ration and to indulge fairly readily in some of that distinctive form of mutual exchange of ideas that others characterise as "cheating".

But this study is far from being an apologia for students. It demonstrates with great precision how so many endeavours by teachers to make students take their work seriously are undermined by the pressure of peer culture.

None of the students in this study spends any time at all discussing the subjects that have come up in lectures and seminars. They are far too busy subscribing to the central values of collegiate life: sociability, fun and humour. Neither do these students have any time for the institutional features of the university. "The deans, provosts and vice-presidents, so important to faculty, remained part of an amorphous university structure that had little to do with students unless they really bungled their lives." Attempts to drum up any sense of campus community were also constantly bedevilled by the ethos of individualism and by the bewildering array of social choices. "It is hard to create a community when the sheer number of options in college life generate a system in which no one is in the same place at the same time." And even though there was much talk of diversity in official descriptions of the university culture, there was little evidence from Nathan's careful study of student eating patterns that the reality matched the rhetoric. There was, for example, extremely little contact between white and non-white men. (Less than 1 per cent of white males ever ate with males of a different ethnicity.) It is difficult to know how many of these findings are directly transferable to the UK. We can at least hope that our overseas students do not find us quite so ethnocentric as those who decide to take their education in the US. "For all the international students I interviewed,"

writes Nathan, "American college culture is a world of engagement, choice, individualism and independence, but it is also one of cross-cultural ignorance and self-delusion that cries out for remediation."

It is the author's alertness to such paradoxes, her subtlety in characterising the irresoluble conflicts between student peer culture and academic culture, her capacity for understanding but never condoning students' inattention to academic matters and, of course, her sheer courage in enduring so much relentless "fun" that make this book such an important and intelligent guide to the modern "consumer-oriented" university campus.

It will not make you love your students, but it might at least stave off that 11.25am-Tuesday-morning resignation feeling.

Laurie Taylor is a fellow of Birkbeck, University of London.

My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student

Author - Rebekah Nathan
Publisher - Cornell University Press
Pages - 186
Price - £12.50
ISBN - 0 8014 4397 0

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