The Final Frontier: Investigating Undergrads

Some time ago, I read an article called Undercover Freshman. It told the story of a faculty member from the anthropology department taking a year off and applying to live in the student dorms for a year.

Nathan had been worrying that students were starting to seem “like people from a different culture,” and it upset her that she didn’t understand this culture with which she interacted every day. The experience in the course she audited only added to her frustration. She saw that once students removed the title “professor” from her persona, they were more than willing to open up. She just couldn’t get them to do that the same way in the classroom.

So we she went undercover. She let students believe that she was recently divorced and living in the dorm while taking undergrduate courses. She experienced the undergraduate student life by sneaking in, listening through the walls, and watching. She’s using an assumed name to publish the results, because her subjects still don’t know about the ruse.

That study made me bristle for all kinds of reasons. First, I’m not all that keen on those sorts of colonialist observational methods. I realize anthropology has been through the ringer about this already, and I’m hardly qualified to add to the pile, but I’m squeamish about observing and writing other people’s reality as truth (at least as non-fiction).

And when it comes down to it, I don’t like the divisions that are being erected here; undergrads are not actually in a separate culture than faculty are. The institution (and society) itself may foster walls between the two groups, but undergrads are adults living in the same town as the faculty members, probably going to the same restaurants and the same bookstores. They are not aliens. There are other ways to meet and communicate with undergraduates than lying to them about your job and eavesdropping on their conversations. Even the article about this woman’s research indicates that students were perfectly willing to talk to her when she was auditing a class, even when they knew she was also faculty. The bridge she’s trying to build is between an instructor and an instructee, not between the high reaches of the faculty and the seething scum of the undergraduate residences. An iota of respect, please! Surely there is a better way to cope with power differentials than this.

What also put my back up was the presumption that undergraduate life is this hidden frontier, that such a study was required in the first place. There are lots of staff and faculty members at any university for whom interacting with undergraduates in a non-class room setting is their mandate. There are staff living in the residences. There are student staff living next door to first year students, helping them with the adjustment to university life and getting to know them as people. When I read this article about Dr. “Nathan” and her research project, I felt as though she had opted to shut down everyone else, she was going to go experience it for herself rather than examine some “secondary” source material first. In the end, from the sounds of the article, the research was more about professional development on the part of this one nameless faculty member rather than ground-breaking research. She didn’t uncover anything those of us who have been working with undergraduates didn’t already know.

Now there’s a similar but entirely different project underway at the University of Rochester. But this time, they’re being upfront about it. The research is being conducted by an anthropologist in conjunction with the library, in order to help tailor services to the specific needs of undergrads.

To get the data, the researchers did such things as interview students about all the various steps they took from the time they got an assignment to the time it was turned in and give students disposable cameras with which to shoot everything from where they do their research to the contents of their backpacks.

The library’s research team — among them, librarians, a graphics designer and a software engineer — then brainstorm over the findings.

I’m interested in the results of both of these studies, but I’m quite certain the former will not hold a candle to the latter. What a great way to re-invent library services! How much more respectful!

3 thoughts on “The Final Frontier: Investigating Undergrads”

  1. I heard Susan Gibbons speak at ALA about the anthropological study they did of faculty. It was easy to tell that it had made a huge difference in the project–and was kind of fun for all concerned. Here’s the entry I made on that session:
    http://joy.mollprojects.com/myblogs/wanderings/2005/07/institutional-repositories.html

    Glad to read the rest of your comments, too. I had a similar negative reaction to the undercover research, but hadn’t managed to voice it as well as you did.

  2. The Undercover Freshman research bothered me because to me it said more about the way she treats her students than the way they treat her. In my undergrad program I was very shy, and unlikely to approach a prof in his office, or speak up during class. However, I often took part in spirited discussions in our common room, regardless of whether a faculty member was present. And they often were. They saw it as part of their experience to hear what we had to say in a setting where we were in control, and we welcomed that. They didn’t need to sneak in to do it.

    I will be interested to see the results of the library research, since that seems like a very valid way to improve service delivery, something that in my undergrad experience seemed to take second place to the collection. What good are the books if no one is using them to their full potential?

  3. Seems the prof’s been outed. (Not sure how she could expect not to be, frankly.) I’d be interested to hear your reaction to the still-falling-out fallout.

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