One of These Frosh Is Not Like the Others…

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.

15 thoughts on “One of These Frosh Is Not Like the Others…

  1. Undercover ethnography … for college students? That seems a little overkill, since the topics – courses, grades – aren’t ones that student try to keep hidden or secret. I have a feeling that students would have gladly and openly talked about these subjects had they been asked directly.

  2. I`m no advocat of undercover research at all, au contraire. And I believe, this kind of data and insight can be gained via noncovered research as well, it`s just an individual matter how you manage your entrance to the field.
    But all the rest of your post corresponds in large parts with my student experience, as most of my fellow students seem to be mainly rather interested in passing tests in time and stuff than in content and getting an understanding overview of what they do.
    It´s a culture of noncriticism that is represented in education politics over here.

  3. 2 different sets of comments:

    1. For thinking about the ethics of this its important to notice what she actually did: she DID identify herself as a researcher, get informed consent for interviews and make it clear she intended to publish the work. The deception involved was that (with the approval of her IRB) her informed consent form didn’t state that she was a college professor when she wasn’t doing the research, although when people asked her directly about her life she told them (this is from the comments to the “Inside Higher Ed” piece). I could perhaps be persuaded otherwise, but this seems OK to me. Certainly it would be interesting (as a kind of reflexive ethnography point) to see what people thought about that fact. As for the problems that arise from the vast numbers of people one encounters casually in any research setting who DON’T know what one is doing there, she seems to have handled it the way I imagine most of us do: one can’t help learning from one’s encounters with them, but one doesn’t quote them or discuss things they do.

    2. My other comments have to do with the degree to which her results are valid accross diffferent college/university settings. My experience teaching at different institutions suggests that the vary culturally quite widely–at one small college I was told by a student that she had been admonished for talking in class because it “made the rest of us look bad.” At another (also a small college) a student told me he was happy to be done with his thesis because now he had time to attend some films extra film studies classes. All this likely varies between groups of students
    in ways that would be clearer working with juniors or seniors than with frosh. Finally, there is a lot going on at college that has not much to do with doing OR avoiding work–it will be interesting to see to what extent she deals with that. And if the book is any good, it might be interesting to teach! (No point if the result will just be slagging it).

  4. From the CUP page for the upcoming book:

    Nathan had resolved that, if asked, she would not lie about her identity; she found that her classmates, if they were curious about why she was attending college at her age, never questioned her about her personal life.

    I’m sure the author was fully aware of the ethical dilemmas involved. However, I’m not sure why this represents “clandestine” research. She legitimately enrtolled at the university and di legitimate coursework, as anyone can. And books published by students about their life as students are rather common these days.

  5. I’m afraid I disagree, Wimbrel. If Nathan were just a memoirist or autobiographer, you’d be right, but Nathan explicitly went into the situation (lying about her academic achievement to do so, I might add) intending to do ethnographic fieldwork. She is not merely reminiscing about what she happened to see; she set out to position herself as an observer of student behavior, and to use her observations in the service of scientific inquiry. If her subjects were any other people — say, homeless people in Chicago, or Muslim fundamentalists in Lebanon, we’d expect her to be as explicit as possible about her research and how she intended to use the data — explicit enough that her subjects could make a more or less informed choice about whether they were willing to take part in the project. It’s one of the first things an institutional review board looks at: how does the researcher intend to obtain informed consent?

    This is a general principle, one which Nathan surely knows about, as her decision in certain instances to reveal her ideantity shows. But, of course, it is likely true that revealing herself in every instance would limit her access to some information (though nothing mentioned in the article would be that difficult to approach using a methodology other than participant-observation). So the question is, how did Nathan herself think her way though these ethical issues? I’m not saying out of hand that she was wrong, I’m saying that a breach of ethics this large had better have a pretty good explanation.

  6. I wonder if Nathan would be subject to the same scrutiny were she not an anthropologist — I suspect not. B. Ehrenreich’s wonderful and much-praised _Nickel and Dimed_ used much the same methodology on a far more vulnerable population. And there is a long and proud tradition of “undercover” journalism.

    Something that worries me about anthropological discussions of ethics is that it participates in the creeping professionalization of our discipline, along the lines of medicine (principally) and law (to which our practice is perhaps more comparable). Let’s not forget that codes of professional ethics in those fields are not all high-mindedness; they were and are part of the self-invention of those forms of knowledge and practice as professional guilds: virtuous insiders in, naughty outsiders out.

    I’m not trying to dismiss discussions of ethics (which are, of course, important) – just to suggest we understand all the implications of vociferous denunciation.
    As they always have, smart insightful people are going to continue to write about social relations and human nature based on their accumulated observations of the world, and they are not going to have to call themselves anthropologists to do it (nor to find an audience for their work). That’s a *good* thing, right?

  7. As interesting to me as the ethics of this case is the epistemological issue: In cross-cultural ethnographies, the author admits initial ignorance, and learns from the subjects. In straight-forward auto-ethnographic work, the author has a certain level of pre-existing native authority which is to be augmented through the research. But in a case like this, the ethnographer necessarily admits to having enough of a cultural grasp of the group she is documenting to pass as a native, but is, in fact, an outsider who is trying to learn from her subjects. To what extent is her research coloured by her assumption of pre-existent cultural proficiency? I’m looking forward to Nathan’s book’s hitting my library next month.

  8. Oneman: an important difference between Nathan’s book about students and an ethnography of fundamentalists in Lebanon is that Nathan teaches the former and not the latter. I see the upcoming book as a set of observations generalized into a manual of practice. It is a student management handbook distilled from experience. Yes, this is similar to work done in the early twentieth century by E.-P., et al., and perhaps in a different world ethnographies would look like this today, but they do not. By the same reasoning, a business manual filled with personal anecdotes would also count as an ethnography.

    I guess the term “ethnography” has certain boundaries for me and I’m not willing to extend it to certain instances.

  9. Wimbrel: Again, I just don’t see it. She didn’t write the book as a teacher of students, she wrote it after going undercover *as* a student. The parallel would be not a CEO writing his memoirs, but a CEO taking on a pseudonym and working on the shop floor of one of his plants and writing about the experience (which, I admit, is something I would absolutely *love* to see!). But een that metaphor is a little off, because the ethnographer brings to his/her fieldwork a highly specialized set of methodological and theoretical tools.

    Ozma: I agree that this is very similar to Ehrenreich’s work — and admit that, although I love _Nickel and Dimed_, this is one of two things that made me uncomfortable about the work (the other is that I doubt a very deep understanding can be reached in 30 days of “fieldwork” — while day-to-day expenses are difficult, Ehrenreich never had to worry about what would happen if she got sick on her working woman’s income, or if her house burned down, or if her car was stolen, the kinds of emergencies that, more often than basic cost of living concerns, ruin workers of whatever gender). I understand the precautions taken — the pseudonyms and protected identities of interviewees, etc. — but I think that the general concern is still worth discussing.

  10. I can see the 30 days of fieldwork issue (though I think one of the reasons her book was good was because of qualities she brought to the experience *as a person* — for which no length of fieldwork can compensate), but your second critique seems a bit hasty. When we are in the field it’s not like we sign a deal with the devil to not leave, no matter what — experiencing every difficult trial of life in the communities in which we work is never part of the deal (this was something that comes up in that article by Alison Spedding about being an anthropologist in prison). If we got accused of witchcraft and threatened with death, we’d leave (unless we were a certain macho male lowland South Americanist anthropologist, in which case we’d threaten death right back. But that’s another post….) . If we were diagnosed with a tumor we’d fly home for treatment rather than sticking it out in the rainforest. If government forces started strafing the roofs of our village, likely as not we’d hightail it out of there and try to “make a difference” from a safe distance (no shame there imho). I don’t see that we need to hold B.E. to a higher standard than we do ourselves.

  11. You misunderstand me, Ozma. It’s not like I’m angry at Ehrenreich for only staying as long as she did, it’s that I question the claim (and here I’m sure she’d agree) that what she experienced comes very close to a “real” working women’s life. In principle, I love the idea; in reality, I knew (and I’m sure *she* knew) that if anything really bad happened to her, she could “out” — and the real terror of poverty is that you can’t “out”. That’s all — as I said, I really like _Nickel and Dimed_, but I have two complaints.

  12. Oneman: A question, if I may. Is it possible for you to imagine an ethnographer writing a memoir? Does she, in order to write this memoir (and I’m using “memoir” as shorthand for any non-professional autobiographical writing), have to put aside all her personal training, her “specialized tools,” and write something in a style and manner totally alien to her? Does a trained ethnographer have to handicap herself to produce something other (less?) than an ethnography?

    Sorry if I’m not making my objection clear, I ought to learn to express myself better.

  13. I’ve got to work up a piece on this topic in general: it’s a big concern of mine. I think that anthropology’s near-instinctive dislike of “undercover ethnography” is one of the big methodological problems with anthropology at the moment. The mention of Ehrenreich is spot-on here.

  14. “I think that anthropology’s near-instinctive dislike of “undercover ethnography” is one of the big methodological problems with anthropology at the moment.”

    Journalism was mentioned somewhere. I think, the outlining of certain ethics and of certain required elements of methodology as noncoveredness within academic anthropological ethnography targets especially on drawing a line between academically sealed knowledge production and free journalism. If this is necessary at all and if there is any difference between those two spheres of knowledge production, might indeed need to be reflected anew.

Comments are closed.