August 27, 2005

After more than fifteen years of university teaching, I found that students had become increasingly confusing to me. Why don't undergraduates ever drop by for my office hours unless they are in dire trouble for a course? Why don't they respond to my (generous) invitations to do out-of-class research under my guidance? How could some of my students never take a note during my big lecture class? And what about those students who bring whole meals and eat and drink during class? Or those other students who seem to feel absolutely no embarrassment in putting their head or their feet on their desk and taking a nap during class?

... I began to notice my own and colleagues' discourse as we continually tried to make sense of what seemed bizarre behavior. Were we like that? Are students today different? Doesn't it seem like they're ... cheating more? ruder? less motivated? more steeped in their own sense of entitlement?

... when I sat in on a couple of colleagues' courses that I had long wanted to audit informally ... [t]o my surprise, I began to hear a new discourse as I was engaged by other students in conversation ... It dawned on me soon enough that I had gone through the looking glass, so to speak, and I was now privy to a world that my students typically didn't share with me.

I realized that I was starting to do ethnography, and to look at my experiences with an anthropologist's eye; it was then that the idea of actually becoming a student occurred to me as a research project for my sabbatical year. My interest in American culture, in the changing American university, and in the undergraduate student culminated in a research proposal to study, as a freshman, at my own university. The research questions I formulated were general: What is the current culture at AnyU (my pseudonym for my university) as an example of the American public university? How do contemporary American students understand their education, and what do they want from it? How do they negotiate university life? What does college really teach?

- My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, Rebekah Nathan



Cathy Small, the professor of anthropology who wrote this book under a pseudonum (she was "outed" by a reporter last week), chose to try to understand the undergraduates she was responsible for teaching by becoming part of the undergraduate culture for two years. In short: Cathy Small has chosen to ask -- and to try to answer, through experiential research -- why don't students seem to care anymore?

Among other conclusions based on her research, such as powerful external pressure to pick a major that readily translated into a job that could pay off student loans (no surprise to those managing or teaching in those fields), Small discovered that based on her experience, undergraduates tended to be very socially insular within their racial group, defaulting into tight friendships of roughly five or so students which were formed very early in their undergraduate years; with larger, university-wide bonding attempts (eg. supporting varsity teams) not being particularly successful. What kinds of subjects are discussed within those tight friendship groups, I suspect Small did not have access to. Outside them, to her utter surprise, not one person had asked her a single question about her personal life, or indeed about anything more personal than her major. When she asked directly why, she was told that in case there had been something bad in the background, they didn't want to probe. But it went even deeper than this:

The general attitude of the people I was around was that 'We don't like to talk about the serious stuff.'
Outside of a few small, politically-charged groups with strong convictions and motivation (environment, women's issues, Christian), students generally seemed to avoid talk of the outside world almost entirely, something Small sees as symptomatic of an abiding lack of curiosity.

Proportionately among those I know of comparable age to the average undergraduate, more than half also hold the same utter lack of curiosity Small must have observed; yet I would interpret this last finding a bit differently: symptom, not syndrome; and not a symptom expressing lack of curiosity (as such) either. After all, what positive motivator exists or gets the slightest systemic reinforcement in most undergraduates for them to express curiosity? It is not something a single professor can fix simply -- or, really, at all -- by making her classes "more relevant".

I include finally three opinion letters I ran across, in response to a newspaper article about Small's research. (Reading one of them, I was reminded of something you had written earlier, Rhui.)

So much for 'preaching diversity' (08-24-2005)

Regarding "NAU prof questions lack of curiosity" (Republic, Tuesday):

According to The Republic, among Northern Arizona University Professor Cathy Small's observations is that "although universities have preached diversity for decades, members of the same race almost exclusively hang out together."

When did "preaching diversity" become a primary goal of universities? What a load of politically correct claptrap. You would think an anthropologist would have a better understanding of human behavior.

No wonder the University of Phoenix has become the nation's largest private university, with over 100 campuses in over 30 states, Canada and Mexico. They teach, rather than preach. - David J. Kolander, Scottsdale

Dorm not the norm for 50-year-old (08-26-2005)

So a 50-plus-year-old woman who registers herself as a college freshman has hit some kind of scientific/intellectual pay dirt and deserved to be on the front page? ("NAU prof questions lack of curiosity" Republic, Tuesday):

Did anyone else read this article and catch yourself saying, "What the ...?"

The professor says no one seemed to want to get to know her? Hello! She's old enough to be their grandmother, and she's trying to be pals with them in the dorm! That's creepy!

These students have been taught about "stranger danger" since they were in kindergarten, and this professor would certainly appear "dangerously strange."

What 18-year-old student is going to find it comfortable having an older person attempting to live like a college freshman? Is this the apex of thought among our professors? - Darin Lisonbee, Phoenix

The wasted rites of 'political correctness' (08-27-2005)

Regarding "NAU prof questions lack of curiosity" (Republic, Tuesday):

Over the years we have played ostrich, burying our heads in "political correctness."

Could it be that it has finally become clear that it just doesn't work? Here we are, questioning the lack of student's interest in one another. Heaven forbid they should talk to each other, let alone ask questions.

If you ask a question, you're branded as someone or something to be afraid of. "Why would you want to know that?" "What's it to you?" "Do you want to sell me something?" "Forget it - I don't want to get involved."

Don't touch. Don't compliment. Don't care. Good grief!

These "students" have been so geared to this "political correctness" insanity, they're scared to death of being sued, accosted, accused of spying, being talked about, etc.

We have raised a society of people who no longer mix and mingle - and there is the real fear factor. What a shame!

What happened to raising our children to be polite and kind? That takes too much effort.

Forget it, Professor Cathy Small. There's nothing you can do. It's been done for us. No more common sense. Just "political correctness."

What a waste. We're all robots. Thanks for trying it, though. - Eileen B. Fiedler, Scottsdale

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