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(cover picture) Nathan, Rebekah
2005 My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Notes: ix, 186 p.; 24 cm. ISBN: 0801443970
(Check out my bio!) Reviewed 19 Dec 2005 by:
Robert Lawless <>
Department of Anthropology, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas, USA
Medium: Written Literature
College students - United States - Social conditions - 21st century
Adult college students - United States - Social conditions - 21st century

ABSTRACT:    An anthropology professor at a state university poses as a freshman and lives in a student dormitory hoping to learn about the behaviors and attitudes of today’s college students.

Based on two semesters of covert ethnography, this book is certainly better than Tom Wolfe’s recent, sensationalized novel about college life I Am Charlotte Simmons, but it is not as good as the anthropological classics, Dorothy C. Holland and Margaret A. Eisenhart’s 1990 Educated in Romance and Michael Moffatt’s 1989 Coming of Age in New Jersey. What is perhaps more interesting is the controversy it has engendered. I will address that before reviewing the book itself.

The Controversy

Rebekah Nathan is the author’s pen name and AnyU is the pseudonym for her university. Even before the book was released “Rebekah Nathan” was outed by a journalist as Cathy A. Small, and the same journalist revealed “AnyU” as Northern Arizona University (NAU). A few days later Small and NAU publicly acknowledged their roles. Indeed, the front page story of the New York Sun on August 19, 2005 (a month before the book’s official release), was headlined “On the Trail of an Undercover Professor” and was written by Jacob Gershman. After reading an advanced copy of My Freshman Year he stated, “Ms. Nathan, whether by choice or accident, also planted in her ethnographic study many clues about her identity. She grew up in New York; she’s in her 50s; she spent many years abroad observing an exotic foreign culture; her university is located near Las Vegas, is surrounded by mountains, and has a hotel and restaurant management school.” The book also revealed that the author teaches an “American culture course” (p. 4), and has been a “full-time faculty member for fourteen years” (p. 10), and is “professor of anthropology and graduate coordinator” (p. 187).

If you Google “hotel and restaurant management school,” the first entry will be Northern Arizona University. Go to the site of the anthropology department, and you will find that there is a female faculty member who received her Ph.D. in 1987, studied an exotic South Pacific culture, and is the graduate coordinator: Cathy A. Small.

Another web page states, “Most recently, I have been engaged in a year long ethnographic study of undergraduate culture, where I moved into the dorms and took classes for a year as a freshman during my sabbatical. I am currently writing an ethnography based on my experiences and research” ( This exercise took me about five minutes-- so much for protecting one’s own anonymity. It must be noted that the dead giveaways, particularly the mention of mountains, Las Vegas, and the hotel and restaurant management school, were deleted in the final version of the book.

In addition, in the book she described her university as “a public doctoral-granting university . . . with more than ten thousand students . . . [and] a residential campus” (p. 17). It is “not listed in the top tiers of U.S. News and World Report’s ‘Best Universities’” (p. 17), it has a South Campus (p. 41), and a new library was constructed there in 1991 (p. 41). Anyone with a knowledge of NAU will recognize the easy fit. Also, like a private joke, AnyU is phonetically very close to the way that students pronounce the acronym for their school. Yet ironically, Small wrote that she worked to “make not only the university but myself as well as anonymous as I could. . . . I am not terribly worried about the possibility that, in time, that information will come to light” (p. 168).

Anthropologists often try to protect the privacy of their informants by granting anonymity to them and their location. The use of such secrecy for anthropologists themselves is much, much less frequent, and the use of deceit in interactions with informants is greatly frowned upon within the discipline.

Early in the book Small revealed her plans to intentionally deceive her informants, and the passage is worth quoting in full (p. 6):

My friends and colleagues helped me wrestle with my problems of identity, asking, “What will you say if someone asks you what you do for a living?”

“Can’t I say I’m not working now--that I’m a student?” I responded, thinking that this was true even if it wasn’t the whole truth.

“Yes,” a colleague agreed, “but what if they ask what you did before?”

“I’ll tell them I’ve done many things--which I have. I can say that I’m a writer, among other things, because I still get royalties from my last book.”

“But what if they say, ‘What other things?’” one colleague pressed.

“Well, I hope they don’t ask me that, but I guess I’d have to tell them that I teach and do research.”

In an afterword titled “Ethics and Ethnography” Small repeated this plan for deception, writing, “If doubly pressed, I would say that I was a professor. This happened only once--and the questioner was a journalism student and friend whose shower of personal queries seemed to warrant a more complete answer than I at first had given. I asked her to keep my confidence, and she did. Most people, though, just weren’t that interested” (p. 159). I submit that this is about as lame an excuse for deception as one will ever find.

In an “Author’s Note” to her 1997 book Voyages: From Tongan Villages to American Suburbs, just after describing her efforts to maintain the anonymity of her informants, Small prophetically wrote, “I must also mention that I seriously question the efficacy of what I have just taken the trouble to do. At this point in history, no place in our writing can ever really remain anonymous and new questions arise about the effectiveness and appropriateness of the anthropological ethic that ‘protects’ informants” (Voyages, p. xi). And in discussing using a pseudonym for the Tongan village she worked in Small penned, “My pseudonyms, though, protect or mask very little. In our post-colonial world, available maps and censuses pinpoint the precise demography of villages. . . . The places anthropologists write about are readily identifiable to anyone in a position to affect them” (Voyages, p. 212).

In the current book Small wrote that she “consulted carefully” the “American Anthropological Association’s statement on professional ethics” (p. 176). Thus it is, indeed, strange that Small makes such an obvious error in carrying out covert ethnography. In fact, the current “Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association,” approved June 1998, states, “In both proposing and carrying out research, anthropological researchers must be open about the purpose(s), potential impacts, and source(s) of support for research projects with funders, colleagues, persons studied or providing information, and with relevant parties affected by the research” (

This code also states, “Anthropological researchers must determine in advance whether their hosts/providers of information wish to remain anonymous or receive recognition, and make every effort to comply with those wishes. Researchers must present to their research participants the possible impacts of the choices, and make clear that despite their best efforts, anonymity may be compromised or recognition fail to materialize” (

An earlier and stricter code, the 1971 “Principles of Professional Responsibility” also stated, “When professionals or others have used pseudonyms to maintain anonymity, others should respect this decision and the reasons for it by not revealing indiscriminately the true identity of such committees, persons or other data” ( This statement raises the question of the ethics of journalists. Why would a reporter out someone who has stated in apparently good faith that a pen name and anonymity were necessary to their work? The “Code of Ethics” of the Society of Professional Journalists does not address this issue, except for this statement: “Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy” (

Small’s covert fieldwork, of course, depended rather more on her maintaining her own anonymity than on protecting her informants and “classmates.” I should think that full disclosure would entail publishing under one’s own name.

After she had become a professor again, Small happened to meet one of her “classmates” on the campus. Upon learning the truth, the student responded, “I feel fooled.” Small wrote, “I imagine that there are a few other fellow students who might feel the same way and with whom I will never have the opportunity to speak” (p. 168).

Among the mixed reviews on Amazon.Com appears: “I hope she leaves anthropology for sociology, where such practices are more accepted” ( reviews/0801443970/104 5086035 5527125). Indeed, the standard sources for anthropological ethics provide no guidelines for the use of deception during fieldwork. For that guidance, we do, indeed, have to go to the code of ethics of the American Sociological Association, which states ( file/Code%20of%20Ethics.pdf):

(a) Sociologists do not use deceptive techniques (1) unless they have determined that their use will not be harmful to research participants; is justified by the study’s prospective scientific, educational, or applied value; and that equally effective alternative procedures that do not use deception are not feasible; and (2) unless they have obtained the approval of institutional review boards or, in the absence of such boards, with another authoritative body with expertise on the ethics of research. (b) Sociologists never deceive research participants about significant aspects of the research that would affect their willingness to participate, such as physical risks, discomfort, or unpleasant emotional experiences. c) When deception is an integral feature of the design and conduct of research, sociologists attempt to correct any misconception that research participants may have no later than at the conclusion of the research.

Despite these issues Small’s research was cleared by the NAU Institutional Research Board (IRB), which raises even more questions. Why did the IRB not require Small to do her research at another university? The potential for conflicts was obvious, such as one of her “classmates” later becoming one of her students. Why did the IRB not request that another university’s IRB do the review? The potential for conflicts when the university approves sending a spy among its own students was obvious.

For her time spent in class other questions arise, for example, was she working toward a bachelor’s degree? Was she wasting the time of her professors? Was she affecting the grade curve? Did she afterwards reveal herself to her instructors? Did she participate in student evaluations of these instructors (in actuality her colleagues). I would certainly like to know if I had a colleague attending my class, especially if that colleague might later be in a position to judge my work, such as a member of the tenure and promotion committee or a member of the faculty senate.

The American Sociological Association maintains that the only justification for undercover work is that the information acquired is exceptional and could be acquired in no other way than through deception, and I hasten to add that these ethics of sociologists are not readily accepted by anthropologists. Whether the information in Small’s book is exceptional and could have been acquired only through deception cannot be cleanly decided, though my own feelings will become clear in the following review.

The Review

As a fake student during the first semester, Small concentrated “on learning the ropes, meeting other students, getting acclimated to the dorm, trying out student clubs, and discovering what it took to do my academic work” (p. 16). She states, “I spent every day and night of the week at the dorm, taking a full load of five undergraduate courses that ranged across the curriculum. Like other students, I went ‘home’ only on the occasional weekend night or during holidays. I consciously chose a wide variety of courses, from modern languages to business and engineering, and professors whom I did not personally know” (p. 16). During the second semester she took only two courses.

In addition to reviewing the literature on tertiary education, Small “conducted forty formal interviews with American and international students, two focus groups (one with freshmen and one with seniors), and several ‘mini-studies,’ including activity diaries completed by students about the use of their time, a five-month monitoring study of who (based on gender and perceived ethnicity) eats with whom in the student dining areas, a study of residential mobility, a descriptive weekly diary of all formal program activities conducted in my dorm, and a survey of informal conversation topics” (p. 15).

Small characterized the dining study as “my most extensive and longest-running ‘mini-study’ of campus life” (p. 61). “For five months I directly observed and recorded the dining behavior of fellow students during randomly selected periods of the day at optional dining areas on campus. . . . sitting at a different table in the room, I would record who sat at each table by gender and, as much as outward appearances can signal, ethnicity” (p. 61). Small does acknowledge what all anthropologists acknowledge, which is that ascertaining the ethnicity of people through mere appearance will lead to many inaccuracies, yet Small gave percentages of, for example, 2.6 and 3.5 (p. 63).

Small did, indeed, have an affinity for questionable percentages throughout the book--or for percentages on rather trivial topics, such as, “In my tallied observations of clothing worn on the walking quad, more than 90 percent of walkers dressed from the same narrow list of items” (p. 143).

In the introductory chapter Small emphasizes what anthropologists often call “culture shock,” that is, the disorientation experienced from a sudden immersion in an unfamiliar culture. For example, “From my new [student] purview, the buildings and general geography looked completely different to me, so much so that I could not tell exactly where I was on campus, much less identify the building or door I was supposed to find. I could not locate the bookstore or the health clinic or the international student office, all buildings I thought I knew” (p. 11). I frankly am a bit incredulous and can only imagine that Small is exaggerating her shock to underline the differences between the perspectives of students and professors--and to establish her authority to speak from the students’ perspective.

In addition, she writes, “Most professors have no idea what a dorm room looks like, or about the routes of the campus bus system, or the cost of books, tuition, and housing” (p. 134). Also, I might add, most professors do not know the nifty fifty top tunes. Knowledge of a dorm room or of the campus bus routes or of the pop charts is trivially unimportant for the professors’ job of research, service, and teaching. And any professor who has had a conversation of minimal length with any student or who reads the student newspaper will have heard the complaints about the costs of books, tuition, and housing.

In highlighting the gulf between students and professors, Small correctly stated, “Most students have no understanding of faculty rank, how the university actually functions, or how professors advance in their careers. They have little appreciation for the after-hours work that goes into staging the courses they are taking, and no inkling of what teachers are required to do besides teach” (p. 134). I will argue that such knowledge is also trivially unimportant for the students’ job of passing courses and obtaining a degree. I should add that the ignorance one of the other is relatively one-sided; after all, all professors were once students, but very few students were once professors.

Strangely after commenting that students do not know what professors do besides teach, Small claimed, “In the time between my Tuesday and Thursday classes in introductory anthropology I have taught only one other class, and I have spent at least some time on Wednesday arranging my Thursday class presentation” (p. 136), seemingly suggesting that she does, indeed, do nothing besides teach. And I am once again incredulous, suspecting that outside of her classes on Tuesday and Thursday and all day Wednesday she attended at least one faculty meeting, participated in committee meetings, read some of the current anthropological literature, handled her correspondence, did some work on her own research project, and monitored several graduate students. Instead she continued to stress the heavy student work-load stating, “By contrast, my students have had at least four other classes in between, maybe more, and they have completed many other reading and writing assignments in the interim, in addition, perhaps, to working a job and attending residence hall or club programs” (p. 136).

Small also engaged in exaggerated naivety, in order, I suppose, once again to privilege her position as the professor-as-anthropologist-turned-student. For example, at one point she asked how students make decisions about what readings to skip, and she employed what she refers to as “a classic anthropological strategy: go to a cultural expert, a native who is particularly skilled and knowledgeable in a subject area, and attempt to reproduce the rules and the considerations that he or she uses to make decisions” (p. 137). So she interviewed juniors and seniors and “discovered” three rules (p. 138), which boil down to “if you’re not going to be held responsible for it on a test or in classroom performance, skip it” (my own condensation of the three rules). Is there any professor who does not already know this student rule?

According to Small, this was “one of the most sobering insights I had as a professor-turned-student: How little intellectual life seemed to matter in college” (p. 100). As all anthropologists know, college is a reflection of the larger society, and if it does anything, U.S. culture promotes anti-intellectualism. Any professor who has had any bare, minimum contact with students knows that most students are anti-intellectual, focused on jobs, interested in having fun, and self-absorbed. As Small correctly stated, “The teacher-student interaction focused less on what students said than on getting them to say something” (p. 94). Many professors purposefully teach to the small percentage of students who do the extra reading, pay attention, talk in class, and, of course, make good grades. And most professors were the same kind of students themselves.

Some of Small’s more significant insights come in her chapter on “Community and Diversity.” As she stated, “Seen from the level of the institution, ‘community’ is a lofty ideal but with few common activities, rituals, or even symbols to bind together its diverse inhabitants. What little one might share with some other students--a major, a residence hall, an interest--is always in flux” (p. 41). In fact, about the only things that bind students together in most public state universities are “youth, pop culture, and getting a degree” (p. 42). (Many people would add the football and basketball games.) And although most students “genuinely want to have a close community, . . . they resist the claims that community makes on their schedule and resources in the name of individualism, spontaneity, freedom, and choice” (p. 47). What community there is for the students develops from an ego-centered, self-selected collection of people and events focusing on and spreading out from individual students.

Small also pointed out, “The deans, provosts, and vice presidents, so important to faculty, remained part of an amorphous university structure that had little to do with students unless they really bungled their lives. In college culture the rules are perceived to come from ‘outside,’ and it was the job of an astute college student to keep his or her real life private and ‘inside,’ certainly behind closed doors” (p. 29). Despite the myth of professors who change the lives of their students, Small accurately observed, “Student-teacher relationships play a relatively minor role in the experience of undergraduate life in a large university” (p. 140). As the undergraduate coordinator of an anthropology department at a state university, I can testify that I have talked with many students who could not recall the name of the professor that they had taken classes from just the previous semester.

Another important finding that Small emphasized is that today’s students are “first and foremost working jobs, both inside and outside the university. Whereas Moffatt reported [in 1989] that one of eight of his sampled students was working, more than half of my sample had a wage-paying job, working from six to over twenty-five hours, with a median of fifteen hours, every week” (p. 34). This fact, once again, reflects the larger society, especially the economic decline in the larger society found most pervasively in the educational sectors. Students are, indeed, very busy, as Small pointed out several times, and much of their business involves trying quite literally to keep their heads financially above water.

In my opinion the best part of the book was the few pages under the heading “Student Culture, the Public University, and American Culture,” in which Small pointed out, “Beginning in the Reagan administration, federal funding of this educational democratization began to decline proportionally; state governments, with new ‘downloaded’ federal mandates, found education budgets competing, often unfavorably, with pressing needs of health care, welfare, and prisons” (p. 149). Despite an increase of about 15 percent in the U.S. population from 1940 to about 62 percent in 2001, state support of tertiary education has declined precipitously. Small noted three responses on the part of university administrations: (1) they seek many forms of corporate funding (my faculty ID carries a corporate advertisement), (2) they consistently raise tuition and fees (almost every year for the last ten years at my university), (3) they appeal to corporations and legislatures by developing “practical” curriculums and certification programs (the latest significant expansion at my university has been in dental hygiene). I might add that a current Associated Press story points out that career fundraisers are now favorite candidates for the position of college president rather than traditional scholars (

Among the consequences are that “funding nationwide for libraries and instruction has dropped steadily since 1985 (despite a college population that increasingly requires remedial instruction)” (p. 149), a bloated administration is eating up university budgets, marketable degrees and certificate programs are displacing liberal arts courses, “bookstores and campus eateries have been privatized” (p. 149), “professors must now make funding pleas based on the department’s ‘student credit hour production’ and its likelihood of attracting new students, as determined by marketing tools such as surveys of student interest” (p. 150), and the universities are graduating students who are already deep in debt. Students and parents especially should be worried about these the long-term trends, not drugs and sex in the dorms. Acknowledging Small’s ability to write clearly, informatively, and entertainingly, I would love to have her expand these themes into a best-selling book.

To get toward an answer to the question of whether the information in Small’s book is exceptional and could have been acquired only through deception, I will do a brief, subjective comparison of My Freshman Year with Coming of Age in New Jersey. The comparison is, however, rather between an apple and an orange; Moffatt’s research lasted ten years, and his book is 355 pages to Small’s 186. Interestingly Moffatt played the role of a “fraudulent” freshman for a few days during orientation week but with no intention of keeping up the facade (1989:1-20), for spying “goes against the ethics of the profession” (Moffatt 1989:20). Later he regularly returned to the dorms for a year to stay with the friends he had made during orientation. He did this in 1978 and 1984 (1989:19-20). For two years after the participant-observation phase of his research Moffatt “taught my preliminary results to many Rutgers undergraduates, and they wrote me papers in reply, correcting and refining my initial conclusions about them and providing me with new interpretations and new information about themselves” (Moffatt 1989:xv). These differences result in Moffatt’s book giving a particularly rich understanding of undergraduate college students.

In many ways, however, Moffatt’s and Small’s experiences and interpretations of student life are strikingly similar; for example, the failed efforts at orientation to create community, the relationships with the residence counselor, the decoration of dorm room doors, and the emphasis on “fun.” As Small admitted, “Some things about college life had probably not changed that much since the 1970s, when Moffatt initially collected data about students at Rutgers University. His student sample, like mine, slept about eight hours a day and attended classes or dealt with university bureaucracy about four hours per day during the week. In his data, two-thirds studied about two hours a day, 10 to 15 percent worked harder than that, and 25 percent studied hardly at all, usually cramming at exam time” (p. 32).

The bottom line is that Moffatt learned as much or more than Small about student life without practicing subterfuge. And although Holland and Eisenhart gave pseudonyms to their universities, neither anthropologist used a pen name or engaged in covert ethnography. Their study is, nevertheless, a marvelous read and an often-cited classic in gender analysis. The final proof may be that Small wrote an excellent ethnography of Tongans in Voyages without pretending to be a Tongan.

Sometimes silly and often superficial, My Freshman Year is, nevertheless, well written and easily accessible; it is jargon-free and bereft of the postmodern gibberish that dogs much of contemporary anthropology. Small’s presentation is open and honest even to the point of occasional self-incrimination. It would seem that professors and college administrators are the intended audience. Social science professors, especially anthropologists, may, however, be too offended by the covert methods to give their undivided attention. Professors in other disciplines where fieldwork ethics are little-valued may enjoy the general thrust and especially the anecdotes. If any college administrators actually read My Freshman Year, they should learn something about the difficulties students have in dealing with the byzantine bureaucracy and curriculum of large state universities. I suspect that the larger and more impacted readership will consist of parents of college students, who may be dismayed or enlightened or both depending on their own previous experiences and expectations. Another body of readers will consist of college students themselves whose opinions will vary according to whether they find the portrayal accurate and favorable. Unfortunately the general lesson that many of these readers will absorb is that anthropology is about deceit and eavesdropping.