My Freshman Day (sorta…)

I participated in a freshman orientation session yesterday morning at EMU. Basically, the session I lead was about “life in the classroom,” and my job was to give them a sense about what classroom life was like in 50 minutes or less. Needless to say, I didn’t manage to accomplish that; I think they’ll actually have to start going to class before they can figure out for themselves what it means to be a “college student.”

I was able to work through an explanation of the handout they give to students, which has sections about things like the need to attend class, reading the syllabus, appropriate class conduct, not cheating, where to get tutoring help, etc. I guess it was useful for them. I mean, all of this stuff strikes me as common sense, but of course, what counts as “common sense” depends on the community that you are in. For example, a couple of students asked about this thing called a “syllabus” and about books (“How am I supposed to know what books to get for my classes?”). Questions that definitely mark these kids as “new.”

And I should point out that they were “kids.” We have a lot of “non-traditional” students at EMU, but as far as I could tell, all of these students were right out of high school and getting ready to live in the dorms, away from home for the first time ever. Most of these students were born around 1987, and this makes me feel quite old. Given that I was in my junior year in college back in ’87, it is no longer a stretch to say that I’m old enough to be the father of these kids. Yikes.

Anyway, while a lot of the questions these future students had about the classroom struck me as simplistic and obvious, I was also struck by how little I knew about the part of EMU that they inhabit on a day-to-day basis. Maybe I’m thinking about this now because I am reading the excellent book My Freshman Year by Rebekah “not her real name” Nathan, which is about an anthropology professor who enrolls as a freshman to research the life of college students the same way that studied other “distant and foreign” cultures. I haven’t come close to finishing reading it yet, but early on, Nathan talks about how different the university looks to her as a student than it did as a college professor. Among other things, she means this in a basic geographic sense: Nathan talks about how as a faculty member, she was able to park and thus enter the buildings where she worked from a particular vantage point. But as a student, especially living in the dorms, the university had a completely different geography, one that she found disorienting and confusing.

I experienced a little bit of that confusion myself on Sunday. While most of the orientation session I led was on “my turf” of the classroom, the students also asked about things having to do with meal plans, some dorm life issues, and registering for classes. There were two “student leaders” in my group, college juniors and seniors who were hired to usher around the new freshman, and I’m glad they were there. I had no clue about the questions these students were asking, and I found some of the answers surprising– the meal plan that students buy works everywhere except Wendy’s in the union, for example.

I could go on, and I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised that what the university looks like is different based on one’s point of view. But I guess I was just struck by how very different this place seems to look to students than it looks to me. Something worth thinking about as I get ready to actually teach….

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