Just in time to begin the semester, today I finished reading My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. I learned about the book from this post. She asks "how would you feel if that older woman in your classes turned out to be an anthropology professor, studying you...?" I'm not sure. Now, of course, I would like to say that I wouldn't have minded, or that I would have felt it was pretty cool. I don't share a lot of the attitudes of many commenters at the site towards the so-called soft sciences. I think social science methods and studies are valuable, and I find the idea of returning to freshman year through the lens of anthropology fascinating. But to be honest, as an undergraduate, I might have felt violated by the professor, if I had thought she was a friend or classmate rather than a researcher. An area of concern in the comments was about the ethics of the research. I couldn't tell from the article in the New York Times whether she had followed appropriate protocols. There is an entire chapter in the book devoted to the subject, and she did follow the university's guidelines, and get approval for her study (which must have been tricky).
The book reminded me a bit of Nickel and Dimed, in that both authors immerse themselves in unfamiliar situations. In the case of Nickel and Dimed, however, the author admits that she never before in her life had to work at the low level jobs she tries out for the study. So that is one reason why some of her observations seemed to be in the "duh" category to me. In My Freshman Year, the main thing that frustrated me was that the author never shares anything about her own past experiences as an undergraduate (I mean the real ones, from when she was 18). She writes as if the study was actually her first time as a freshman, and her only college experience is as a professor. I found myself wondering why the cramped nature of the dorms surprised her. She comments that most professors have no idea what students go through in terms of housing, or meal plans, or juggling schedules. That may be true, and certainly times have changed. But haven't all professors been undergraduates at one time? And probably very few were commuters or attended a community college. I certainly remember freshman year orientation week and living on campus, and it happened 28 years ago. Is it because she, and perhaps most other faculty, have attended small, elite, private institutions that were very different from a big public university? Then again, aren't dorm rooms too small there too?
Some of her remarks are about things that I have noticed, and wondered about. Students rarely volunteer to speak in class, and when they do, it is about housekeeping (how long should the paper be? How many sources do we need?). Other types of comments earn disapproving glares from their peers. Doing the reading is not a high priority. Most students have part-time jobs in addition to a full-time college schedule and that cuts into time for both academic pursuits, and for social activities. Students don't seem to sit around talking about the interesting things they are learning. Clubs, activities and volunteer work are selected as resume enhancers. Technology has replaced some forms of socializing. Kids of the same race, ethnicity, religion, even gender sit together in the cafeteria; mixed tables are rare. She has written a lot of interesting things about these topics, and the reasons for them, but the book is rather brief, and I would have liked to read even more.
Anyway, I liked the book enough that I have added it to the list for the book analysis in one of my classes. I'm eager to hear what students have to say, assuming any choose it this semester.