I finished reading Rebekah “not her real name” Nathan’s book My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student the other day. I say “not her real name” because the author had originally written the book under a pseudonym about students at AnyU, but it’s been pretty well documented that Nathan is really Cathy Small and AnyU is actually Northern Arizona University.
I think that anyone who teaches college and who ever wonders what the heck these students are thinking should read this book. No, should be required to read this book. About a month ago, there was a discussion on the WPA-L mailing list I posted about here, one where folks were complaining about “the students today” in relation to the Tommy Lee Goes to College show. (BTW, I did actually watch parts of a couple of episodes of the show; I didn’t find the students that surprising or even that “bad” or whatever. I just thought the show was kind of boring). These folks complaining about students need to really really read this book.
I don’t think Nathan’s/Small’s book says anything about the student experience that is too surprising or even that different from (what I remember of) my college experience. But it’s her willingness to really partake in the contemporary student experience that is most striking to me, I think. Nathan/Small has real empathy for her students as she writes this book, and I guess it’s just refreshing to see some educator to be as undertanding of students as we educators would hope students to be of the world around them.
This is not to say that Nathan/Small doesn’t have any critiques of contemporary students. For example, the chapter on international students’ views about the general ignorance of the world outside of the US American students have is pretty effective, and she is critical of the “corporate state” of affairs at most American universities nowadays and how this is driven in part by student demands. But she does a good job of complicating these problems. This book never reads like a “those dumb kids today” critique because Nathan/Small goes to great lengths to examine why students have the perspectives they have, and she points out frequently enough that in many ways, the problems of students today aren’t a whole lot different from the problems of students in her generation or even in the 19th century.
My only problem with the book is its focus on “traditional students:” 18-22 year olds living in the dorms. This isn’t really Nathan’s/Small’s problem exactly because this is what she sets out to do, but it’d be interesting for someone to do an ethnographic study like this of more non-traditional students. Of course, it’d be a heck of a lot more difficult to follow non-trads around for a year….