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College Confidential

A Q&A with the professor who immersed herself in the culture of a campus.
University Business, Sep 2006

When anthropology professor Cathy Small undertook her latest study, she chose to zoom in on a group of people living right beneath her nose: undergraduate college students.

Like any good anthropologist she immersed herself in the village. She lived with the students in a dorm, and worked alongside them taking freshman courses. The middle-aged professor moved out of her own house, moved into a single on campus, and began to live like a coed. She did her best to get the full undergrad experience. She even got busted by resident advisors within 48 hours of starting her first semester for kicking back with a beer in the dorm.

During her observation period--which took place at a large public university in the Southwest--Small absorbed the everyday aspects of student life. She made a few buddies and attempted to master current speech conventions (students seemed to be using a different dialect of English, she later reported). A dorm meeting around Valentine's Day provided her with one of her more colorful stories: The "How to Make Edible Underwear" program drew 23 people, more than any other dorm meeting that year.

Beyond the light aspects of her experience, Small encountered some telling customs and troubling trends. Students craved community, but didn't really bother to get involved in dorm life. White students didn't mix much in the dining hall with students of color. Many students seemed more focused on fulfilling economic missions (read: finding jobs) than on intellectual or creative growth.

After finishing her year in the life, Small put her cultural observations together in My Freshman Year. The book, written under the pen name Rebekah Nathan to protect student sources (although the New York Sun newspaper revealed the author's identity this summer), is not long on recommendations. Instead, it gives a ground-level peek at the rituals of undergraduate life today.

Small notes that while her undergrad experience took place at one school (Northern Arizona University, her employer), the resulting observations could apply to many IHEs. "It's not really about this university," Small says. "It's really about AnyU."

As for her identity, Small made sure never to lie to students, she says. Many just never asked her enough questions to discover that she was really a professor at their school.

Systems are interrelated. Sometimes you look at something in your left hand and you say 'I don't like that,' and then you look at something in your right hand, and say 'I like that.' You don't see that they're related. They could actually interfere with one another.

The thing with community is that we keep talking about it and how important it is in terms of college life. But then, what we really do in the university is give people so many options, such a tremendous degree of choice in student life. Everything from the meal plans to whether you live in the dorm or whether you have apartments or which section of 20 sections you're going to be in. We give so many options that it becomes a community of one. By the time they are done picking from all the options, no one has the same life.

It takes a lot of work to create community. I feel bad for the res[idential] life people, whom I thought were fantastic. I felt the res life people were like Sisyphus, moving the rock up the mountain. We ask them to create community, but there are other places in the universities where we have policies creating this proliferation of choices, which works against what they're doing. I think they're in an untenable situation.

It's the relationship between two things we like-choice and community--that we're not seeing. Sometimes they can interfere with each other.

This is where the pundits do come in. I would like [schools] to understand how I think it works, and then they have to decide things like are we going to limit choice? Are we going to say to freshmen, you have to live in the dorms? You have to take a freshmen seminar? Or you have to have a meal plan? Those are the choices that the people who do this for a living need to look at understanding that every time they build in another option, they also are letting people take those options.

Your book points out that institutions of higher education reflect society at large and also help form that society. Many students seem more concerned about career goals than intellectual life. Is it up to a school to say 'This is what we're here for' or 'This is what you should be coming to college for'?

I don't mind, and as a matter of fact I think it's a good idea, that universities help people in their careers, that they help people get middle-class status, really. The reason I am supportive of that, especially at the public universities, is that before World War II, you were talking about 16 percent of the population going to college, the elite folks. Now it's almost two-thirds of youths going to college. It's a much wider and democratized segment of American society. There are people who want to get a job, who want to have a career and make a decent living and have a decent life, and I think that's legitimate.

The point at which I start to give warnings, or where I start to be concerned, is when the mission of the university turns itself around the economic development of the state that it's in or even the country that it's in. When that becomes the driving force, when the university starts to be a training ground for the jobs that the society needs, I think that can produce problems of various kinds. The university was always supposed to envision a wider and more beautiful society, a more visionary society than the one that we're in. So when [the mission] is just directed to what the society is right now, you lose a major function of the university, which is really to have a vision of the world that might be different from the way the world is today.

Yet you hear from a lot of government officials that America's economic success relies on higher education.

I think it's legitimate for the society to think that, but I don't think it's legitimate for the university to totally build its mission around how it will contribute to economic growth. I think that's a reasonable thing for a state to say. But it's not the only thing about public education. It's important to do other things with public education besides create an appropriate workforce.

I really do think there are. I guess I was a bit negative about this. I think it's frustrating as someone who feels a commitment to diversity, as many university professors and administrators do. Why aren't we doing better? I don't think racism alone explains it, although there are pieces that do come out of that.

What you're seeing, and I think this is fair to say about most campuses, is that we have made strides in recruiting a more diverse population. But the students are not mixing in close and intimate ways, or they don't seem to be, in the way of the real purpose of having diversity on campus. The purpose is not just to have people walk by each other--it's to develop close relationships between people of different ethnicities, sexualities, and nationalities. It's to develop a real insight into other ways of thinking and living. That's a real promise of the university.

So how do we keep that promise? I think we have to take the next step. The next step is beyond just recruiting the right mix. What does that mean? Again I think the professionals are going to look at this, but I think the answer is not just what we're doing in terms of curriculum. I think it's not just having diverse classes, where we find out about Latino history. It's more than the curriculum, even though that's an important piece of it. I think you can do things in the freshman year, more social activities. And have academic activities that cross over from social to academic. I did a wonderful seminar that was outside of the university context, with a B'Hai group that had multiracial meetings once a week to talk intimately about experiences with race. I could see how a university classroom could integrate something like this, where people could get credit for it, which is very motivating for students today, they are very utilitarian. Instead of just making it an informational class, make it a class in which the real purpose is an intimate understanding of others' experience, and a frank discussion of ethnicity and race. People could talk from their experiences and listen to one another.

There's another point that I think was important in there. That is when you look at diversity closely, when you look at it from the point of view of which people are being diverse with whom, it's really different for people of color and whites. I don't have the data to show that nationally, because nobody's looked at that, nobody that I know of has looked in the same way at that material. I thought it was hugely telling that people of color were really quite diverse in their choices of friends, in whom they ate with, in their social networks. We're talking about really big percentages [in the dining hall], if that means anything. Fifty-eight percent of males [of color] and 68 percent of women [of color] were eating with people of a different ethnicity than their own. For whites, we're talking about closer to 10 percent of people doing this. I've never heard people talk that way before. I think that's important to see.

So when you get questions like, should there be an African-American student unionbecause [some people worry] that will take African-American kids out of the population, I think this is very much support for the fact that [people of color] are mixing. Maybe the [African-American] student union is a needed respite.

Yes, and I think it's a great line. I don't think that you can fight culture. Being an anthropologist, [I believe] culture is what it is. That's why I write about it in an understanding way. We don't judge culture; people can do that but it's not useful. Having Friday classes to stop people from drinking on Thursday night is just not a reasonable solution to try to deal with culture in that way.

I have a Buddhist philosophy of teaching. I believe in the way that Buddhists teach, that is, teach to where people are. I think universities have to decide, is diversity important? Is community important? Is intellectual life important? And if it is, that's your call. But then how you do it and how you institute it, you've got to look at who you're teaching to and how they will receive it.

If students are very high on individuality, or they're very high on utilitarianism and they think it's important to see the use for everything, I can't say they should be interested in the reading--whether or not we use it in class--just because it is a good reading for every intellectual to read. It's not workable. I'm dealing with students who want to see a use for things in class, so I have to make a use for readings in my classes. If I don't, students are not going to read it. I can complain about that forever, but if I really want them to do the reading, I have to see it from where they are.

I'm trying to teach to how they will learn. That way they are likely to learn the things that I will learn. The Wall Street Journal kind of poked fun that I cut some of the readings for my class. They said, gee, that's a downer, students don't read and so you cut the readings? That's hardly what I meant. What I meant is that I can see the things that students are willing to do , and they certainly will do the reading, if you can show the relevance of it in terms of the things that they have to do in class. The readings that I'm not going to use, I am going to get rid of.

I think one of the strategy points is how early in the college experience some things happen. I think it's very relevant to this community/diversity thing. [Decision-makers] need to think about the different things that they're trying to accomplish right away and what makes sense in terms of timing. The example might be sororities, let's say. I see that sororities are one of those real community-building experiences, or they can be. That's very important. But sororities and fraternities are drawing on similarities, most are doing that almost to the point of sameness. If you are really trying to encourage diversity, you are going to have to do it early in the experience. Maybe think about putting off pledging for a semester, so that you get a chance to bring kids together in a living and working situation, and then let them choose.

When you let people choose very early in the game, they are always going to choose what's most comfortable, because everybody's scared. I was scared. I was homesick, it was stressful, and it was stressful for everybody. If you bring people together in other kinds of situations you'll have more of what you want in terms of diversity.

Be very careful about that first year. Should [students] be able to choose their roommates, and meet someone in advance or come with someone from high school? I'm just asking, I don't know what the answer is. But I think they're good questions to ask. Or do you create a questionnaire, and then match roommates on that basis? I think freshman dorms could be very diverse. If you have an African-American studies dorm, or other kinds of things, if you know that the study area draws on one ethnicity or class, then don't make that a dorm. The same thing with these pre-trips [that students sign up for before the start of school]. Ask yourself, whom will this draw, whom will this bring together in an intimate experience?

I think it's too much to ask people to move out of their homes,...and I think students probably wouldn't appreciate a rash of administrators living among them in the dorms. But I think it's important to talk to students. One of the things I did was just to be a student myself, but the other thing I did was to interview them. They can tell you a lot.

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