Sunday, April 02, 2006

Undercover professor's local field trip

I've just read Cathy Small's book "My Freshman Year, " which she published under the pseudonym Rebekah Nathan. Experiencing the standard disenchantment that many lecturing staff face when dealing with students who fall asleep in class (if they attend) and seemingly show no intellectual interest or even curiousity about the subject she is teaching, Small took an unusual approach to tackling the issue. She enrolled as a first year undergraduate in her own university, lived in a dorm and pretended to be a mature student rather than a professor. During the year she gained a much clearer understanding of the cultural context in which today's students live and work and just how much conditions have changed since the time in which she (and many of us) was a student. It's a fascinating account and certainly does reveal at least some of the problems of mismatch between university staff & policy decisions and student response. For example, she highlights the serious difficulties faced by students in constructing a manageable programme and timetable when they are given too many options and choices of course, leading to huge fragmentation. In addition, she reveals the near impossibility of building a sense of "community" that is anything other than a small group of very similar individuals.

She spends the final chapter/appendix of the book explaining the ethical dilemmas she faced in such work and why she tried to hide her identity and that of the university, but unfortunately her secret was out within 2 weeks of publication due to the keen work of a New York reporter, picking up clues in the book. The use of the name AnyU wasn't exactly a clever choice for the real institution's name of NAU!

Anyway, I recommend that anyone concerned with the current state of higher education read this book and don't delude yourself thinking that this is only relevant to US higher education. Some of the issues regarding student attitudes and lifestyles may well be peculiarly American, but with the trends in many countries towards modular programmes, fees and part-time work, the rise of individualism and concerns about student "cheating," I don't think any of us should be complacent.

(1) This book on Amazon

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