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Professor explores her college

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- If you're an anthropologist and you want to understand an alien culture, the place to be is in "the field," as they say.

Which is how Cathy Small, a fiftysomething professor at a large public university, found herself three years ago this month hauling a laptop, a TV and other must-haves to the dorm, standing alongside hall-mates in a shower line and scrambling to find classrooms on the campus where she has taught for more than 15 years.

Over the years, she says, she had grown disconnected from students. Why, for example, did no one come to office hours? Why didn't they bother with assigned readings? Why did some kids eat entire meals in her class? To find out, she took a sabbatical and enrolled in her university.

Now, she chronicles her observations -- under the pseudonym Rebekah Nathan -- in the soon-to-be-released My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (Cornell University Press), a first-person account of student culture today.

Small, who teaches here at Northern Arizona University, used her real name throughout her freshman-year experience but says she chose a pseudonym for the book to protect the privacy of her subjects. That has created a stir in academic circles. Small knew she couldn't keep her identity a secret forever, but she had hoped to remain anonymous at least while students she had interviewed were still in school.

On Friday, though, The New York Sun identified her as the likely author. Small and her publisher did not confirm it then, but on Monday she and her university agreed to let USA TODAY reveal her identity. Regardless of any fallout, she says, the experience has made her a better professor.

And oh, what many a parent might have given to have walked in her shoes that year. She was privy 24/7 to the sights and sounds of college life, from the ubiquitous beep-beep of video games to bathroom graffiti to late-night bull sessions.

Yes, she saw plenty of behavior that gives college students a bad name: drinking, cheating and political apathy. But overall, she says, she developed a greater affection and respect for students. "And the more I knew the students, the more I felt that way," Small says during a stroll across her campus.

The age gap presented few barriers. In fact, she got the idea for her project after auditing a few courses and finding that classmates readily included her in conversations.

Though the author avoids judgments, her anthropological eye quickly noticed contradictions between popular perceptions of college students and what happens in real life:

*Students, especially young men, like that wild-and-crazy image -- their dorms were peppered with jokey references to alcohol, sex and parties. But daily life was far more mundane. "On a typical weeknight, more than half of dorm residents were in bed by 11:30 p.m., and most were up the next morning by 9 a.m.," she writes.

*It is uncool to appear to care about academics; students avoid front-row seats in classes and otherwise downplay academic or scholarly interests. (Overheard: "I mean, when are you ever gonna use Nietzsche at a cocktail party?") Yet in intimate settings, they demonstrate a stronger commitment to studies. Once, for example, a French-class study buddy scolded Small for skipping verbs that weren't going to be tested. "Is that the only reason you are learning this material?" he asked.

*Though students showed little interest in politics, My Freshman Year suggests they're not so much apathetic or lazy as pragmatic and very busy. The author calculates that students devoted only a third of their attention to academics, but they weren't slacking off. One student, who was up at 5 a.m. most days for ROTC training, dropped her meal plan because she literally didn't have time to eat. Others were involved in athletics, clubs and/or community service.

But jobs, especially, took up big chunks of time. More than half of 12 students who kept diaries for her had paying jobs, working from six to 25-plus hours a week. In most cases the extra income covered incidentals such as dinners out, car insurance and clothing, "things they couldn't really be asking parents for all the time."

The author's small sample roughly reflects a national survey for 2003 showing that two-thirds of all students were working, including 54% of freshmen and 88% of seniors. Nationally, that survey says, full-time students worked on average 10 hours a week.

The student experience may play out differently elsewhere, but some students and officials at large private universities say My Freshman Year hits home.

"I read it in one sitting and it really resonated," says Don Siegel, an earth sciences professor at Syracuse University, who got an advance copy at a trade show.

"Certain things definitely rang true," says Sara Schapiro, 24, a Duke graduate to whom the author turned for feedback on the manuscript. For example, intellectual discussion in casual conversation was considered "sort of dorky."

This is neither the first nor last time that a person over 30has revisited the undergraduate years. Rutgers professor Michael Moffatt's Coming of Age in New Jersey, published in 1989, is considered a classic. Last fall, Roger Martin, president of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., took freshman courses at another liberal arts school as a way, he says, to meet the millennial generation "up close and personal."

For his just-released Binge: What Your College Student Won't Tell You; Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess, journalist Barrett Seaman lived a week in the dorm at each of 12 top universities. Tom Wolfe hung out at Stanford and elsewhere for his best-selling novel I Am Charlotte Simmons.

Like Moffatt, Small struggled with how to get an authentic experience without compromising her ethics. In earlier fieldwork in a remote village overseas, she identified herself fully to locals but disguised her location in published works. On campus, she says, she used her real name, but fearing that her status as professor would hinder her, she offered only that she was a returning student who was doing research she hoped to publish. She said she was a professor on certain occasions, such as in focus groups with foreign students who didn't know her as a student.

Now, as publicity about her book widens, Small, still using her pseudonym, has been responding to criticism, particularly among educators, of her anonymity as an author. She devotes a chapter to that decision in her book.

"Some think I (chose to be) anonymous to protect my university or that the university didn't want this to come out, or to protect myself," Small told USA TODAY on Monday. But it was "to protect the students who contributed to my book. I made agreements with them."

NAU president John Haeger plans to ask that Freshman be required reading of all administrators, spokesman Tom Bauer said. "We're hoping that this makes better teachers. That's the bottom line."

At Cornell University Press, the project passed a peer-review process and won approval by a board of Cornell faculty who look for academic merit. "We knew that in anthropology the question of ethics is a really big deal," says Frances Benson, the book's editor. "She was very careful. It was only when she started thinking about publication that in order to protect the students she needed (a pseudonym)."

A secret is met with a shrug

The author also ended up revealing her professor's status to a few people, including her dorm resident assistant. But mostly, she says, no one seemed to care.

In fact, on a campus of more than 10,000 students, it wasn't hard to go unnoticed, she found. Mostly, it meant avoiding the anthropology department and taking courses from professors she didn't know.

Many of the book's observations and informal surveys jibe with national studies of student behaviors and attitudes. And Small says the student perspective could be useful to campus officials who deal with issues such as cheating or academic engagement. "Most of the time people use statistics to make policy decisions," she says. By "not recognizing the cultural dynamics, they may be barking up the wrong tree."

In one example, she tells of administration-led time- and stress-management sessions in which students were advised to mark deadlines in day planners.

But she discovered students had their own guidelines for managing the demands of college, such as taking easy courses to balance harder ones and avoiding Friday classes as a way to protect "one's right to socialize, travel, sleep, party, and/or work," she writes. Cheating, too, was a strategic response to what they viewed as unfair or unrealistic teachers or policies. It is OK, one person told her, "if you don't (care) about the class but are required to take it and ... the info they are making you learn you know you won't ever use again."

"The key was not, as college officials suggested, to avoid wasted minutes," she writes. Rather, it was about regulating the workload and doing no more than necessary.

In another case of misplaced emphasis, My Freshman Year details numerous failed attempts in the dorms to create community. Movie nights fizzled. Mandatory hall meetings were largely ignored. On Super Bowl Sunday, exactly six people, including the author, showed up in the lobby to take advantage of the well-promoted promise of pizza and drinks.

Returning to her room at halftime, the author overheard the game on TVs in individual rooms. Where doors were ajar, she saw clusters of people eating, drinking and watching the game.

Further investigation led her to conclude that most students felt they already had a community -- which they defined, she says, as basically "the four other people they do everything with." Rarely were those people racially diverse.

'Intellectual life' often barren

As for academic engagement, the first hint of how things would go came early, when freshmen gathered to talk about a book they were to have read over the summer.

Discussion sputtered in both of the sessions the author attended, and in one, more than half the students acknowledged that they hadn't finished the book. In regular courses, students rarely spoke; when they did, there was little debate. Small characterizes what she heard instead as "a sequential expression of opinion."

It was sobering, she says, to realize "how little intellectual life seemed to matter."

Even so, Small found answers to many of her questions. After all, she, too, had found no time -- or reason -- to visit her instructors' offices. And she, too, had cut corners.

Today, as a professor, she tries not to let certain things -- eating in class, the apparent lack of interest (she knows some care more than they let on) -- bother her. She has tightened her reading list, assigning only those texts she intends to discuss. She gives credit for writing discussion questions in advance.

The year after she returned to her role as professor, she was named teacher of the year -- a student-nominated campus honor.

She still grapples with the content of classroom discourse, but students are speaking up more. And if a student appears to be falling behind, she offers to help.

More than ever, she says, "I'm rooting for them." If she learned anything, it was "compassion."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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