As a professor at Northern Arizona University, Cathy Small was baffled by undergraduates. They seemed less engaged, less likely to do assigned reading and more likely to ask questions like “Do you want it double-spaced?”
So she decided to study them as anthropologists research any foreign culture — she lived among them.
After moving into a dorm, eating cafeteria food and struggling with a five-course schedule, Small said she empathized with students who struggle to balance chaotic class and work schedules.
“I’m trying to get really to what student culture is doing and tailor my teaching,” said Small, who wrote a book on her research under the pseudonym Rebekah Nathan called “My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student.”
Recreating the freshman experience
Small took a sabbatical and spent the 2002-2003 school year conducting her research. With approval from the university’s research board, she used her high school transcript to get admitted and moved into a dorm — though she did forgo the roommate experience by getting a single room.
Small spent the first semester taking classes outside her field of expertise, trying to immerse herself in student life. She didn’t go to her Flagstaff home and didn’t contact regular friends, trying to experience the loneliness and other travails of freshman life.
During her second semester, she did more formal interviews and focused on the research, which she published without identifying students or the university, although it eventually was outed by the media.
Small said she found that students downplayed publicly the effort they put into assigned reading or papers, but when interviewed, many said they were interested in their course work.
Her surveys also found that only about a third of what students were talking and thinking about outside of class was based on their course work.
That finding has led Small to change her coursework to better connect to the real world and to skip reading assignments that don’t have a direct purpose.
Part of the trick to college life, she learned from good students, was being able to quickly decipher what work needed to be done and what could be skipped. Those management skills helped students balance classes, part-time work and involvement in volunteer or professional groups, Small said.
She found some of the coursework tough and had to seek tutoring for a class far outside her field of study. “It was a hectic life,” she said.
Small also said she found current undergraduates faced more pressure to pick a major that readily translated into a job that could pay off student loans.
Travis Shumake, student body president and a senior at NAU’s School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, said he sees that all the time — students choosing his program because it provides the “fastest results at the highest income.”
Small said her generation wasn’t as career-oriented in college.
“It was an era of anti-materialism. It was kind of nerdy then to talk about careers,” she said. “Now, different things are nerdy.”