Understanding the life of students

Dear colleagues,

What are students thinking? What do they care about? How would we know?

Rebekah Nathan is a US anthropologist who decided to find out. She enrolled as a first-year student at her own university, lived in a student residence, attended classes, joined student activities, participated and listened in on conversations, observed displays on noticeboards and the doors of student rooms, and interviewed students. Her story is engagingly told in My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (Cornell University Press, 2005).

Other first-years, aside from noticing that she was much older, expressed no curiosity about her background.

"Rebekah Nathan" is a pseudonym and she writes about "AnyU", a campus similar in population to Wollongong's. The situation in Australia is different in a number of ways but there are also many similarities.

Nathan's observations are perceptive and sometimes disconcerting. One was that students have so many options - classes, clubs, social occasions and companions - that there was little that was automatically shared. By offering more choice, universities may be undermining the possibility of "community" they claim to be fostering. For students, university becomes a shifting set of people and activities, with little sense of shared life.

The world of the undergraduate is one of "self-selected people and events". One result is that international students can feel left out. There is a superficial level of interaction but international students are seldom sought out to be part of personal networks. International students were disturbed to find that so few US students were interested in their lives. This wasn't due to racism but rather a consequence of individualism and choice, key characteristics of student life.

In the classroom, there was an unspoken class norm of being like other students: "Aligning with authority by being too close in proximity or sensibility to the professor is suspect, as are students who are particularly vocal and regularly answer questions or make comments. ... It is fine to do well in a class, performing better than others, but only if you do it unobtrusively" (p. 91). This ethos led to the familiar experience of few students volunteering to speak in class.

Walking out of class, students immediately stopped talking about any matters of intellectual content. Individual students might be interested in some assignments, but it was not the done thing to talk about content out of class.

What did young women in student residences talk about? Boys, sex, bodies, relationships, entertainment - and hardly ever about academic things.

When students talked to their teachers, it was often instrumental, namely to improve their marks. A career orientation underpinned many behaviours. Some students joined clubs or did community work because it would look good on their cvs. If required to do a subject outside their major, learning was incidental.

Final-year students at AnyU say they've learned most about "themselves, their abilities, and their relationships" - not subject matter.

When in trouble, students first contacted their peers. Academics were at the bottom of the list.

For Nathan, it was a culture shock to become a first-year again, and then another shock a year later to rejoin the ranks of academics. As a teacher, she developed greater compassion, now recognising the many roles and tasks juggled by students. She was also more rigorous in preventing cheating, knowing from close up how reluctant students were to turn in a classmate.

Nathan's study is methodologically sophisticated: she qualifies her generalisations, refers to other literature about student culture and draws on her own emotional reactions in the student role.

I recommend My Freshman Year for its insights, especially those that challenge academics' cherished illusions.

Brian Martin
1 September 2006

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