Speaking of pseudonymous professors, an anthropologist using the name Rebekah Nathan went undercover as a college freshman in order to produce an ethnography of modern college students. Now, I’m still working through the fact that this study represents a blatant example of covert research and the ethical implications of that, but my first impression is not about the ethics of the work but about the workload. Nathan, in her 50s, went through a lot of effort and expense to find out things she could have asked any of her younger colleagues about! New teachers are only a few years out of their undergrad studies — I’d been out for 8 years, but then I’d spent a lot of time doing non-school stuff before and during my grad school years — and I’m sure she could have tracked down a 28- or 29-year old professor, probably in her own department, if she’d tried.
In any case, what she discovered is that students talk among themselves about their professors in “less than flattering ways”, and that their discussion of coursework focuses primarily on “grades, upcoming tests, and complaints” rather than on “substance”. Of somewhat more interest was her examination of inter-racial and inter-ethnic friendship, where she found that although most students will claim to have close friends from different racial or ethnic groups, very few actually spend time with members of groups other than their own. Most intriguing — and hopefully significantly explored in her upcoming book, My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student is the egalitarianism that shapes student classroom participation — “so much of student culture is about being equal” so few students are willing to single themselves out by asking or answering questions.
This last point merits a book on its own, because of the deep reflection of current American culture as a whole it represents. Against the individualism that is so often highlighted as a feature of American identity, this kind of “Apollonian” conformity and refusal to individuate oneself seems odd (with a nod here to Ruth Benedict) — though clearly as much a part of American identity as individualism. I remember skipping several sessions of geology lab as an undergrad when I began feeling the resentment of other students over my 20-point lead blowing the curve. But I wouldn’t quite chalk it up to an idealistic “equality” — my own sense of my students and my remembered student days suggest that there’s a healthy dose of fear and even coercion at work in inter-student relations. Which, of course, is perfectly in line with Benedict’s depiction of the Appolonian Zunis, for whom witchcraft accusations were often the reward for “standing out”.
I can imagine that Nathan’s book will be useful for professors, especially those who have been out of school for a couple decades or more, but I’ll have to think about those ethical issues a lot more before I can justify buying the book. I realize that there’s some sorts of research that just won’t work if its subjects know it’s research, but I simply cannot believe that undercover ethnography is the only way to get the information Nathan has recorded.