As freshmen around the country venture into dorms and lecture halls for the first time, U.S. News education writer Alex Kingsbury chats with Northern Arizona University's Cathy Small about her new book, My Freshman Year. Small, an anthropology professor in her 50s, wrote the book under the nom de plume Rebekah Nathan to preserve the anonymity of her subjects. But she agreed to the use of her real name after a newspaper identified her and the school where she teaches. Small attended her own university as a student, lived in a dorm, took classesand gained a new understanding of undergraduate life.
What surprised you in the first few weeks of school?
College is not easy. There are five or six classes, and each professor has their own way of doing thingsdifferent places to get books, different instructions for submitting papers, different office hoursand class schedules are very disorganized. Professors are not always aware of the hectic schedules students juggle between clubs, jobs, and classes and how that affects their performance in class.
How was your performance in class?
I was not a great student, and I sometimes went to other students for advice on what to read and what not to read. It got to a point where I knew I wasn't going to do all the reading assignments so I began to look more closely at what rules generate reading or not reading. I found that it's not just laziness. You just don't do the reading when there isn't a direct use for it in the class.
What about life outside the classroom?
Colleges are looking to boost student involvement by increasing the options available, [but] it is fragmenting the communities that they are trying to create. There is very little continuity in student life; people come and go and drop out of clubs, student groups, and classes. It's a function of the system of choice in the modern university. It can spread people thin and doesn't always produce the kind of cohesive community that they are trying to establish.
Your descriptions of student life probably would not surprise administrators who work in student life areas of a university.
As faculty, we should have more contact with student life administrators. Professors are often very removed from that aspect of the school and don't, for example, know what the course fees are or how much a book costs. We don't know how our students live, how they travel, and all of the things that they are up against. I didn't realize the extent to which those things really mattered to my teaching. I now tell other professors to share the transportation that students use, eat in the same places, walk in the dorms at leastto see what things are really like.
How has your year as a student changed the way you teach?
As student life changes, it's incumbent on professors to change their pedagogy as well. I went back and looked at my own syllabi and realized that the readings weren't built into the grading and discussion system of the class. Students read based on rewards (like pop-quiz grades) and volume. If you assign too much reading, there isn't time to bring those readings into the class in a meaningful way. I cut about 20 percent of my reading assignments and changed the curriculum to better use what they've read in the class. When I say, 'We're going to have a discussion on a reading,' we do it.