Undercover Freshman

Anthropologist enrolls as a new student at her university, moves into a dorm and emerges a changed professor.
July 13, 2005

The idea first came to her when she audited a course. Rebekah Nathan noticed that her fellow students in the course -- unaware that she was a professor -- included her in discussions about their weekend plans, homework assignments and what they thought of the instructor. Nathan realized that as a professor, her status made it difficult for many students to talk openly with her -- however inviting and open she might be.

Nathan had been worrying that students were starting to seem "like people from a different culture," and it upset her that she didn't understand this culture with which she interacted every day. The experience in the course she audited only added to her frustration. She saw that once students removed the title "professor" from her persona, they were more than willing to open up. She just couldn't get them to do that the same way in the classroom.

So Nathan, an anthropologist who has previously devoted her scholarship to research on a village in a developing country, decided to apply her discipline on her own campus, a public university. Nathan applied as a freshman (submitting only her high school transcript to show her academic credentials), moved into a dorm, enrolled in courses, shared beers and gossip with her fellow students, and took careful notes throughout.

The result is My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, which is about to be released by Cornell University Press. Nathan is a pseudonym and she does not identify her university or any students by name because she doesn't want to violate the privacy of those who confided in her. In the book, and in an interview, Nathan discussed the unusual ethical issues she faced, the joys and hazards of dorm life and what she learned about higher education by spending a year on the other side of the power divide.

While she can't go on the lecture circuit without compromising her anonymity, Nathan is excited about sharing her findings. She will be monitoring any comments or questions posted on this article and will respond to them, so those with questions for her are encouraged to post them in the comments area at the end of this article.

"It has profoundly affected my view as a professor, in a really positive way for me," Nathan said in an interview. "I was on the border of becoming alienated. I could feel it. And now I see students in a much more human way, with more compassion. And I'm doing different things in the classroom."

In an era when research involving human subjects receives more and more scrutiny, readers may suspect that her university was out of the loop on her project. But actually, Nathan received approval from her Institutional Review Board (the body that oversees such research), including permission to keep her identity a secret. When she conducted in-depth interviews, she told students she was doing research, but didn't reveal her professorial status and said she was doing this research as an undergraduate.

Nathan was so worried about protecting students' confidentiality that she didn't seek any outside funding for the project, and paid tuition and dorm fees herself, so no agency could ever make a claim on her notes.

In a few cases, she decided to out herself as a professor, but she limited that to situations in which she thought failing to do so would harm students. For instance, in a sexuality class, she and other students shared intimate details about their experience, and Nathan writes that she feared that the students -- if they later found out she was a professor working on a book -- would fear that their privacy was about to be invaded. So she told these students, pledged to keep their stories out of her book (a promise she kept), and was surprised when they made her a promise of their own: They wouldn't share her sexual history with her future students.

Earning students' trust is all the more impressive when you consider that Nathan is in her 50s. She said that she found out that a rumor spread in her dorm hall that she was coming out of a tough divorce and that's why she was living in a dorm. While the rumor wasn't true, it allowed students to understand why she was there.

In the book, Nathan discusses at length her thoughts on the ethical issues involved. But while she does so in the context of anthropology ethics, the writing is free of jargon and the stories are easy to follow (and sometimes quite funny) without much knowledge of her field or its lingo.

Among the choice vignettes in the book:

  • Getting busted by her RA for drinking beer in a student lounge. While Nathan was comfortably over the 21-year-old drinking age, she didn't realize that she was allowed to drink only in her room.
  • Realizing that student chatter about assignments rarely focused on substance, but centered almost entirely on grades, upcoming tests, and complaints.
  • Hearing her professorial colleagues at the university critiqued by students in less than flattering ways.
  • Finding out how students think they can manipulate professors and then watching it happen. One student boasts to Nathan about how asking professors about their weekends leaves them more likely to offer extra help.

In parts of the book, Nathan also explores why researchers may not always get honest information out of students. For instance, she notes that students typically report that they have at least one close friend who is a member of a different racial or ethnic group. But when she looked around the cafeteria or the lecture hall, Nathan found relatively little interaction between racial groups, even though nearly one-fourth of the students at her university are members of minority students.

Doing formal and informal surveys, Nathan found that if you ask students whether they have a close friend of another race or ethnicity, they tend to say Yes. But if you ask them to just name their closest friends by name, and then look at the race and ethnicity of those students, it tends to take a long time before they hit a name of a student who is from a different group.

In the classroom, Nathan found that she sometimes engaged in the same behavior that had driven her crazy as a professor and that annoys faculty members everywhere: feeling tired or coming to class without a firm sense of the reading. These experiences have made her a different kind of teacher, she says.

"I really did not understand about the reading thing," she said. "If you ask most professors at most schools, they will tell you that students don't read." Nathan said that she, like her fellow students, did the readings when there was a direct relationship between the readings and the course. Obvious ways to make that connection are quizzes and essay assignments. But Nathan says less obvious ways, in which readings are directly related to key themes, can work as well.

"You have to make it useful in the classroom," she said, "not just reading for reading's sake."

Another area where her experience as a student changed her teaching is asking questions in a class. Nathan said that she noticed that "so much of student culture is about being equal" that many students view the act of asking a question as singling themselves out, so they won't ask. So a question such as "Who knows X?" or "What did you think of the readings?" will get ignored by students who do know X or have an opinion on the reading. Nathan said that she now uses techniques such as asking "How many of you thought X and how many of you thought Y?" and that when students see that they are not alone in thinking X or Y, they are more willing to engage.

Nathan also said that her experience as a student made her realize that with regard to sleeping in class, professors just need to get over it. "It's very disturbing when you are a professor to see it, and you see it a lot," she said. But when you are a student, and see the hours students spend working to pay for college, and the conditions in which they sleep (or don't sleep) in their dorms, lecture-room slumber is to be expected. "I can see now that it has nothing to do with me."

Sleep, of course, is difficult for a traditional-age freshman, but what about a 50-something woman playing the part of a freshman? It all depends whether it was Nathan the faux student or Nathan the anthropologist.

"If I really answered as just a person who was in the dorms, I would say there were some disturbing things about it," she said. "This is not my lifestyle. I was up too late. There was too much noise coming through the walls. There was too much throwing up. There was too much drama. This is not where I am in life."

But she quickly added the other perspective. "I was living there as an anthropologist and so everything was interesting. Being up at night and getting awakened in the middle of the night was just something I would make another note about it. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed living under those circumstances. I liked the part of community of waiting on line to go to the bathroom with my little shower caddy. It was funny, and I think I also got to see on a more intimate level the day to day lives of people when they get up in the morning, when they go to bed."

Nathan doesn't plan any more books about undergraduate life, but her experience has inspired her to try to refresh her courses and to volunteer for committees and assignments that deal with the undergraduate experience.

Cornell University Press expects considerable interest in the book. Frances Benson, the book's editor, said she has never before published a book without the author's name. "I fell in love with this project," Benson said. "I was captivated by the ethics of ethnography in the book, and by the stories."

Cornell is printing 5,000 copies in hardback -- much higher than the norm for new anthropology titles. To promote the work at May's BookExpo America, a huge publishing trade show, the press gave out galleys -- along with Ramen Noodles.


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