Friday, October 28, 2011

My Freshman Year: What A Professor Learned by Becoming a Student / by Rebekah Nathan

As an anthropology professor at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, Rebekah Nathan wanted to find out why so many of the faculty and students simply failed to understand one another. In an effort to research the issue, she decided to take a more hands-on approach to understanding the behavior of her students and promptly re-enrolled as an undergraduate. Getting (back) into school wasn't actually that hard. Professor Nathan was able to finagle a situation in which the administration of a local state school ("AnyU") allowed her to follow through on her little experiment. Though she admits the somewhat disorienting feeling of being a 50-year-old freshman, Nathan concedes that it was probably the best way to observe the relationship between today's college students and their academic work. And while the study is sociological in nature focusing on the average students lifestyle as well as their study habits, there's a more substantial portion of the content geared toward the academic side of things. Above all the author just wanted to know why her students seemed so disengaged from the world of intellectual pursuit of ideas as opposed to studying merely for a grade. Why have so many of tomorrow's leaders been transitioned to the mindset that college is yet another facet in the consumerism? Why are things like cheating, not reading the required material and skipping assignments altogether viewed as perfectly acceptable? Why is plagiarizing someone else's work in favor of producing your own no longer such a big deal?

My Freshman Year is, at the very least, an honest attempt to investigate and at least acquire some understanding on the state of higher education, and it succeeds in examining an outsider's assimilation into a particular social group. But it's far from foolproof. You have to actually read the book to realize it's not another pop culture critique by a savvy journalist wanting to investigate the more interesting social behavior of transitioning adolescents. The experiment succeeds, but only to a point. Nathan's resulting conclusion about today's college kids--"that, above all, college is about positioning yourself for a good job and an affluent future"--seems a bit inconclusive as she does little more than surmise on the partial dissolution of academia (the pursuit of knowledge) and its inability to adapt to contemporary society. She doesn't really get that of the majority of the individuals she's associated with, most are preconditioned to follow the same merit-oriented mindset in college ("careerism") which they were indoctrinated with during their more formative education years. The independent, scholarly "life of the mind", while theoretically still viable, has for better or worse been superseded by more pragmatic ideals, ones which aren't necessarily exclusive to the collegiate microcosm. (371.198 NATHAN)

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