Back to school at 52

Anthropology professor Cathy Small went undercover to find out why her students kept sleeping in her class. She learned some very strange lessons.

Published September 13, 2005 6:30PM (EDT)

After 15 years of teaching anthropology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Cathy Small was feeling more out of place as a college professor than she had when she studied social stratification on a remote Polynesian island. Befuddled by a student population that seemed increasingly disrespectful and uninterested, Small decided that the best way to understand her students (and improve her teaching) was to become a university freshman herself.

So, in fall of 2002, when she was 52, Small enrolled at NAU, moved into a dorm, signed up for a meal plan, handed over her faculty parking pass, and told family and friends that she wanted to be as lonely and homesick as the typical freshman, and thus wouldn't be able to hang out much during the school year. Assuming that students and professors would treat her differently if they knew about her study, Small constructed a persona for herself: Hoping that people wouldn't push her for more specific information, she became a writer with an undeclared major, "born and bred in New York," who was at school to "see what college was like." With few exceptions, she didn't disclose that she was an anthropology professor at that very university.

For one year, Small took classes, hung out in the student lounge (where she once got busted by the R.A. for drinking beer), participated in pickup volleyball games, and asked her fellow students a lot of questions. In addition to her own "undercover" observations, she pored over research and conducted formal interviews with more than 50 students, over half of whom eventually figured out that she was a professor at their school. Those "informed" students signed consent forms saying they could be quoted, though not by name. Small says that she didn't quote anyone who knew her only as a fellow student, but that she did use the observations she made while undercover to formulate questions to her informed interviewees.

The result is "My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student." To protect the privacy of her students and her university, Small published the book under a pseudonym, Rebekah Nathan, and referred to NAU as "AnyU." In an afterword on ethics and ethnography, Small wrote, "I certainly would have preferred to put my real name on my work, and I am not terribly worried about the possibility that, in time, that information will come to light. But for now, while student friends are still in school ... this affords another level of both ambiguity and privacy."

Or so she thought. Two weeks before the book's Sept. 1 publication date, an article appeared in the New York Sun in which journalist Jacob Gershman correctly surmised that "AnyU's" Rebekah Nathan was really NAU's Cathy Small. Media outlets around the country jumped on the story, and Small's project sparked numerous debates about the ethics of going undercover at a university, about the intellectual laziness of college students, and about Small's career motives for writing the book.

Salon spoke with Small last week over coffee in a Manhattan cafe.

Your main reason for embarking on this project was that you felt out of touch with your students, that they had become "increasingly confusing" to you. What was confusing about their behavior?

They would eat in the middle of my lecture -- sometimes a full meal. Or someone would put their head down on the table and sleep. The primary questions I got in class would be, "Is it going to be on the test?" "Should this be double-spaced?" I would be careful to have plenty of office hours at convenient times and then sit in my office waiting, and no one would ever come.

So you decided the best way to learn about students was to become one.

I felt like I was looking at students as if they were Martians, or from a different culture. Given that I'm an anthropologist, I knew the best way to get insight about a different culture was to go and live like them. Not just by talking to them or observing them, but becoming them and seeing what I came up against.

You seemed disappointed to learn that students don't really discuss the content of their courses outside of class -- you write that more frequent topics are "bodies, bodily functions, and body image," relationships, personal history, pop culture, alcohol and drug experiences. When they did talk about class, it was to complain about the amount of work, compare grades and test answers, and assess their professors attractiveness or likability. Did this really surprise you?

There is an awful lot of conversation about nonacademic, nonpolitical, nonphilosophical things, but I saw something very interesting also. Anyone who said they did have a philosophical conversation might qualify it, like, "Yeah, we were really drunk that night, so we got into all this deep philosophical stuff," or "Yeah, sometimes I get into this dorky mood and then I talk about deep topics." When you hear that as an anthropologist, you think the students are responding to a criticism that isn't even being made, that is in their head.

What do you mean? What's the criticism?

Students don't like to sound like they're trying too hard. That's what I would see in the pre-class conversations. You know, "How'd you do?" "Pretty good. I got an A, but I barely studied." Or "I did well, but it's amazing, because I thought I totally bombed this." You have to seem like [success] is effortless, or like you haven't put a lot of work into it. And that becomes part of the culture. I think a lot of students want to have [more substantial conversations], but they don't feel comfortable doing so.

Do you think that is specific to your university? Northern Arizona University is a fourth-tier, non-elite public university that, you write, draws most of its students from within the state. Do you think students at, say, Yale, are having more intellectually passionate discussions in and out of class?

I absolutely don't. I think AnyU is "any U." I've had conversations with someone from Duke, for example, who said the exact same thing: "You can't seem like you're trying too hard. You don't want to make out like you're dorky and that you spend all your time studying or that you're really into a certain topic." I really think this holds true across the board.

Why did you want to be undercover and anonymous?

"Undercover" and "anonymous" are different. The undercover part was so that I could experience life as a student. If I went and announced to my classes, "Hey, I'm a professor," would the professor teach me the same way? Am I going to be allowed into study groups? Am I going to get the real experience of being a student?

As for the anonymity part, an anthropologist always makes up a name for their village. When I go overseas and write about the South Pacific, I make up a different name for my village.

To protect the villagers' privacy?

Yes. So I made up a name for my university. When I interviewed people, I told them, "I will not use your name if I quote you, I will not use your dorm, and I won't say the name of the university. I'll make something up." And I did that. But in my classes and in the dorm, I wasn't anonymous. People called me by my real name. It wasn't until later, when I was writing, that I thought, if I'm not going to use the name of the university, then I can't use my name, because that would identify the school. Of course, you write a book, you want to have your name on it. But I realized, if I'm going to keep my promises to the students, then I've got to make up a name for myself.

How did Jacob Gershman from the New York Sun figure out who you were?

He said he found clues in the book -- that the university was near Las Vegas, that it was close to the mountains, that I grew up in New York, that I was in my 50s and had done anthropological research abroad -- and he probably found clues because I wasn't very paranoid about it. Like I said, anthropologists always make up the name of the villages they study. So I figured, who would care what school this is? Who cares who I am? I'm nobody! I guess he thought that [identifying me] was an important thing to do.

Other papers picked up on the New York Sun story, including my own state paper, the Arizona Republic. They disclosed my identity on the front page. Then all of a sudden we had all these reporters at the university, and I was faced with a situation that I didn't anticipate. I was concerned about breaking the agreement I'd made with students. I thought the only thing to do was to come out and talk to the press. By not confirming, I was fanning the media fires. So now I'm talking to people, but this was not what I intended to have happen. This book should have been about an anonymous university, and I should have been anonymous.

Your undercover research method has stirred up quite a bit of controversy.

Part of the problem was that people [made comments about the book] before reading it. When they read I went undercover as a professor, they said, "How could you do that?" not realizing I actually did informed consent with people I talked to. All of the observations I made while living as a student were always public. I never report any private conversations. If it's something private someone said to me thinking I was a fellow student, I can't report it. There are no quotes from people who haven't given me permission.

How do you respond to critics that say you did this study primarily to advance your career?

The idea that it would advance my career is wild. How does it advance my career when I try to write the book anonymously, and I have no intention of ever revealing that I ever wrote the book, and it's not even in my field of interest? I am at the end of my research career, and this was about me becoming a better teacher.

Why did you think you needed the on-the-record interviews in addition to your observations?

I realized that at my age, I'm not having the quintessential student experience in all respects, and I really needed to talk to other people, as well.

Since you mentioned it, you really don't look like the typical college student. I thought more students would be suspicious, or at least probe into your background. Yet only one student, a journalism major, seemed to suspect anything unusual. Later, some student friends told you they thought "it was a little sad for an older woman to be living in the dorms" and they didn't want to ask too many questions for fear there was a messy divorce story.

Truthfully, I felt I just wasn't that interesting to them. The questions they asked me were the same questions they asked each other: What is your major? Where is your hometown? And there were plenty of older, nontraditional students like me in school. I wasn't the only one, and it wasn't that strange. There were even a few others in the dorms, just not in my dorm.

How did you avoid your colleagues on campus?

I took classes with professors who I didn't know and assumed they didn't know me. I consciously selected subjects that were not my forte, like business and engineering and computer science.

It sounded like you had to work pretty hard to socialize with the students in your dorm, because they were never around! As part of your research, you consulted studies (including the 2003 National Survey of Student Engagement) that suggested that students today study less and socialize less than students from the '70s and '80s. From what you saw and heard, what fills this extra time?

Students have more pulls on them today. In the group of 50 students I interviewed, none spent more than three hours a day socializing. Instead, they were in student clubs, they were taking five classes, some were double-majoring so they were even taking six. They had volunteer work, and way over half of them were working. That's a major thing. National data reports that students are working over 10 hours a week.

Why are so many students working?

My impression was that the work is not enough to pay for tuition. They're taking out loans, and the loans are really paying for tuition. The jobs are more of a supplement. They pay for the way of life the students are accustomed to: their iPod, their computer and their car. Most of these things students didn't have or care about years ago. They're also supporting their nights out, which can include eating or drinking, and shopping.

It sounded like work, present and future, is a huge aspect of college students' lives. In addition to spending their leisure time working at part-time jobs, most of the students' energy seemed to be focused on preparing for future careers. Everything they did -- clubs, volunteer work, even friendships -- seemed geared toward getting them a job after school.

Well, research shows that 61.7 percent of those who finish high school go on to college. Before World War II, only 16 percent of the population attended college. So now we have a much less elite group of people in college. State universities are helping people get a leg up on life. At the same time, tuition costs are rising, and as a result, people are going into greater debt to pay for their education. I don't think there's anything wrong with thinking about a career. I don't want my students to exist only in the world of ideas.

You spend a lot of time talking about "community" as it relates to college life. Why was this such an important topic for you?

In the book, I look at things that the university says it wants to focus on. They say, "We're a community of scholars, we're a community of diversity, we're about intellectual life." That's what the university thinks it is. From what I saw, the student's version of these concepts is very different.

What does "community" mean to the students you talked to?

I saw a much more individualized version of community. For most people who said, "I've got community here," it was the five people they hang out with. And that really becomes their university.

You can see that in the kinds of housing that students are attracted to. The old dorms are built according to the "big community" idea, with huge lobbies furnished with big overstuffed chairs, three TVs in giant rooms. But nobody is using them! People are going to an off-campus apartment to visit friends, or they're all congregating in one person's room. At my university we have one dorm with a waiting list, and of course this dorm has big suites, four rooms with a living room, washer and dryer, bathroom. It's like an apartment with everything there. Students only ever have to interact with three or four other people.

I talk about the time my dorm had a big Super Bowl party and only a handful of people attended. Everybody else was sitting alone or with one or two other friends in their own rooms, watching the game.

You suggest that our "overoptioned" public university system is not conducive to building community. Can you elaborate on that?

You have so many choices in a university that people become a community of one. You have a hundred majors to choose from. So let's say you have 10,000 people. Then you've got 1,000 people in each major, and you break them down even further by saying, do you want to live on campus or off-campus? Do you want a meal plan in the dining halls or do you want to eat off-campus? Do you want to join a club? The students have so many choices that by the time everyone is done choosing, nobody is living the same life. It's 6 p.m. in the dorm, and you're done with classes, so you say, "Do you want to get dinner?" And everyone's like, "I can't because I've got this, I've got that." That makes it much harder to connect.

That's one of the justifications for fraternities and sororities: They make the university smaller and give people a sense of community.

Fraternities and sororities are a big way that people can hang out. But in terms of diversity, you end up with people just like you. But it's not only the Greek system [that works against diversity]. Many of the things universities do to construct an early freshman experience limit diversity. For example, summer river trips, getting all the kids who are the first in their families to go to college together, holding special socials for the Hispanic kids ... If you do that right away, those are the kids that will stick together.

But at least then they'll be able to spot familiar faces within the larger, more intimidating, faceless university population.

The university is pitting this [abundance of options] against community, and they need to find the right balance. Maybe there's some timing involved. Maybe in first semester, there is less choice, then you can open it to more choice later.

You wanted to find a "model" of a class that students were really excited about. That class happened to be Sexuality.

Students seemed to be excited about the fact that there was a connection between the things they were doing outside of class and the things they were studying inside of class. One of the questions I asked in the formal interviews was, "What are you in college for?" People would say, "To learn. I'm not just here to party." But they told me that 65 percent of what they were learning came from outside of class, and only 35 percent came from in class. I was a little surprised by the percentages. But since I am trying to be a better professor, I have to take a lesson from classes like Sexuality and try to connect the information that students are learning in class to their lives outside of class.

Since you've gone back to teaching, have you been able to do that?

Yes. I'm now teaching a freshman class called The Anthropology of Everyday Life. Before I did the research for this book, I wasn't teaching freshmen at all, only graduate students. But after this experience, I decided I wanted to go back to undergraduate teaching. In this class, I'm trying to connect anthropological concepts to things that are going on in their lives. For example, let's say I'm teaching about cultural expression or art in another culture, and I'm showing all the different ways that these expressions reflect cultural values. I take freshman into the dorms, and I say, "Let's look at how students decorate their doors. Look at the phrases, the images. What are we saying about ourselves?"

The students at AnyU develop strategies for getting the best grades possible, often at the expense of learning, absorbing new material, or challenging themselves. Many students talk about "working the teacher," some admitting that they tell the teacher what he or she wants to hear, even when it's contrary to their own opinions.

It's not surprising to me that students work professors and are into grades. The surprising thing about that conversation was that the student who said that she "worked the professor" also said that she had learned more from that course than anything else. Before my study, I was always on the lookout for this [kind of behavior]. Now I'm not as concerned if I feel like somebody is "working me" to get a good grade. It isn't personal. Before, I was annoyed if people ate or slept in class. Now I'm concerned. I know people are living very busy lives, they have a packed schedule, and sometimes they don't even have time for a meal or a break.

No doubt there are some students that are going to try to pick all easy A's, and for those students I probably feel the same way as I used to: Come on, what are you here for? But for most students I no longer think that is what is going on. I realize what they're up against, and I realize how hard it is to get everything to work in the schedule. With the student whose only reason for wanting to join my class is because "it's the only thing that fits in the schedule," instead of being annoyed, I now think, at least I have the opportunity to teach them something about anthropology and maybe spark an interest in them for the rest of their lives.

By Corrie Pikul

Corrie Pikul writes about women's issues and pop culture. She lives in Brooklyn.

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