During a year-long research sabbatical, Cathy Small, a professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University, enrolled as an undergraduate student in her own university. As a teacher and an anthropologist, she wanted to better understand student culture. What do students do with their lives while in school and why? Small lived in the dorms, took classes, and made friends. She watched, took notes, conducted interviews, and asked a dozen students to record their daily lives for her in diaries.
Afterward, using the pseudonym Rebekah Nathan to protect her subjects’ identities, she wrote an ethnographic description of student culture: My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2005; reprinted New York: Penguin, 2006). One of our core readings and the focus of not a little controversy, this book has been widely read, highly acclaimed, and deeply bemoaned—if also often misunderstood. It has appropriately become a landmark for discussions of student learning and the lack thereof.
The unusually big splash this academic book has made may be attributable to several factors, including her choice to be anonymous, her lively writing style, and her unsettling findings, which, if one interprets them in a certain way, lend support to stinging indictments of education—in a culture with an appetite for stinging indictments of education. But, most importantly, the book is notable because Nathan takes up the most important and, perhaps, most misunderstood factor in education: students.
Teachers may romanticize or villainize students based on conjecture, personal experience, and anecdotal observations. But for the most part most of us remain in the dark about what students actually do and want. Nathan moves us beyond speculation and gives us a useful portrait, grounded in empirical observation. This portrait includes bad news, good news, and an overall more complex and informed way of understanding students’ lives.
We probably already know that many students attend college, among other reasons, for the social life. We surely already know that social life often competes with academic life. That Nathan’s observations confirm these hunches should come as little surprise. For most of the students she observed, Nathan states, it was not “intellectual life or formal instruction” but “peer culture” that was “of central importance” (p. 99, 103). She continues:
Classes, in fact, were described [by students] in multiple instances as the “price one has to pay” to participate in college culture, a domain that students portrayed in terms such as “fun,” ”friendships,” “partying,” “life experiences,” and “late night talks.” The tiny place occupied by anything academic in college life was a consistent message. (p. 103)
Yet, despite this overriding emphasis on the social aspects of college, Nathan also found that friendships among these same students were less ethnically diverse than one might expect and that efforts at fostering community among them were less effective than one might hope. Too bad, given that diversity and community could be redeeming aspects of such an emphasis on socializing.
Even if we accept that many students attend college primarily for social reasons—and, of course, for credentialing that leads to a job or career—we might still hope that they would also like to learn. We might hope. But just as learning is not the priority for many—it also seems not even to be a priority for many students. Nathan writes that “academic life is tangential or at odds with peer culture” and that “[t]he tiny place occupied by anything academic in college life was a consistent message” (p. 99, 103). She found “how little intellectual life seemed to matter in college” particularly “sobering.” It was not that students didn’t care about education at all or flagrantly missed class but quite plainly that “engagement in political and philosophical issues of the day was not a significant part of college student culture” (p. 100).
The distinction between “classes” and “intellectual life” turns out to be especially important. Most of the students she observed did what they had to do to pass classes, earn desired grades, attain desired credentialing for desired careers, etc. But they did so first and foremost not by learning what we set out for them to learn but by learning how to “manage” college, how to get those desired ends with as little time and effort as possible (p. 107).
In a particularly informative passage, Nathan explains how the juniors and seniors she interviewed (“cultural experts” in college) go about deciding whether or not to read for class. Perhaps surprisingly, she argues that they “don’t casually or lightly discard assignments.” Instead, she explains, they consider whether they will be tested on the reading, whether they will need it for the homework, and whether they will have to “personally and publicly respond” to it in class discussion. If none of these will be the case, “then don’t do the reading,” they advise (p. 137-138).
Even though students may complete the work we require of them, many of them are simply not in college to learn. As she writes, “If class learning is exciting or self-revelatory, then all the better; but, except where it impacts one’s career, learning is incidental” (p, 131). To put it plainly, many students—perhaps even most—don’t go to college to learn. That’s just not why they’re here. This is not to say that such students are bad people. They just have different priorities than we would like them to have.
At least one of Nathan’s findings does seem outright ugly. Nathan observes that it is often socially unacceptable for students to give signs of academic engagement (which matters so much). Academic engagement is often, in effect, policed. Nathan found such things as serious participation in class and discussion of academic things outside of class taboo. For example, she observed the following with respect to students talking to one another before and after classes:
Academic discourse was limited to a narrow sort of mutual questioning. “Did you do the reading for today?” and “Did we have something due today?” were both common pre-class queries. Shared complaints about the way the course was going (“I can’t believe he hasn’t turned back either of our last two assignments”) or the prospect of the upcoming class (“I hope that he doesn’t do that in-class writing thing again”) were also heard. . . . One would never hear, “Did you like that reading?” or “That paper assignment really made me think.” It is not that students didn’t like the reading or find the assignments provocative; it’s just that these weren’t acceptable or normative topics to introduce in informal conversation. When academic assignments were mentioned, the discourse converged on a couple of main themes. Students either talked about reactions and comparisons of evaluations received . . . or they focused on the effort or attention given to academic assignments—usually emphasizing the lack thereof . . . (p. 96, emphasis added)
Nathan also notes that such things as speaking up too much, sitting too close to the professor, and asking good questions seemed to break the norms of classroom behavior and create a “subtle distance” between the offending student and the other students (p. 91). Nathan shares a disturbing account from a college student in the early 1900s, offering that what he says about his college experience is “practically indistinguishable from the rules of classroom interaction” that she observed in the 2000s. The student explained that publically demonstrating engagement by answering questions asked to the class was “like sticking your neck out.” Similarly, to read beyond what was required and “to let that be known” was considered “bad form” by other students (p. 108).
If many students come to us indifferent to learning, that is one thing. We still have the opportunity to try to spark their interest. But if some proceed to actively or passive aggressively suppress any signs of interest in themselves and their peers, that is something else altogether. We face a difficult task indeed.
We are right to find Nathan’s description of college student culture sobering. But there is some good news too. And it is very good news indeed. While many or most of the students she observed appeared not to be in college to learn, there were exceptions. Nathan stresses that student culture is not homogeneous and that it contains pockets of students who want to learn and who work hard to do so. In one of the most important and encouraging passages of the book, she suggests that instead of trying to “‘fight’ culture,” which probably wouldn’t work anyway, we should try to “support what is already present in the culture, albeit in private spaces or minority options.” There’s more to student culture than first meets the eye, she writes, illustrating her point with what she (rightly) calls “a particularly poignant memory.” Nathan recalls preparing for a French exam with Ray, a student she befriended during the study:
I had just finished testing Ray on a series of vocabulary terms when he began questioning me on the past imperfect tense. “Forget that,” I responded. “She said it’s not on the test.” What he said next shocked me. “Is that the only reason you are learning this material . . . for the test? Don’t you want to learn to speak French better? Come on, do it.” (p. 142)
Living as a student, she had inadvertently internalized the non-learning attitude of so many students. But it was also a student who called her to go deeper. Nathan goes on to explain that, back in her role as a teacher, she seeks to support and contribute to subcultures of learning to which students like Ray belong:
When I contest certain aspects of undergraduate culture—by refusing to “dumb down” a course, say, and make it an “easy A”—I feel that I am aligning myself with students, and internal dialogues of students, that already exist in undergraduate culture. (p. 144)
If Nathan’s findings at Northern Arizona University turn out to more or less represent college student culture in general—as they likely do in certain respects, at least in the U.S.—then we can say the following. While many or even most students do not go to college to learn, some really do. We can support these students and encourage others to join them.
To be sure, certain aspects of Nathan’s portrait of students will not immediately endear them to us. Some may seize upon these to further a student-bashing agenda. But, altogether, Nathan’s account does not portray students as somehow delinquent. Perhaps the most valuable quality of My Freshman Year is that it presents not just key findings (such as those described above) but a “thick description” that cannot be easily summarized. The ethnography places students in the context of their lives. To understand the key findings, one must see the larger picture. Students are not merely students; they are people, with all that that entails.
Looked at this way, the emphasis on social life and credentialing and the neglect of learning make sense. In addition to social lives, students have many other legitimate demands on their time competing with learning: sleeping (but not enough), working (too much), eating, volunteering, taking too many classes at once, participating in social causes, participating in religious organizations, spending time with family, etc. Are these not understandable? Moreover, why wouldn’t students want to make the most of “college culture”? And, perhaps most importantly, why would or how could students a priori believe that learning really and truly ought to come first—that that’s not just something teachers say?
Nathan helps us see positive and negative realities in college student culture. She also helps understand students in the context of their lives, which makes many of those motivations and actions of theirs that we view as regrettable at least understandable. And if we want to help students change their motivations and actions, we have to start with understanding.