Undercover Mother

Back to school: A professor spends a year as an undergrad to study college life

In the fall of 2002, Rebekah Nathan, a 55-year-old anthropology professor looking to become more "crazy in a good way," enrolled in her own university. She moved into the dorms, hung a cutesy message board outside of her room, and chatted on Instant Messenger, using plenty of smileys. Soon after, she "got busted for drinking." She hoped her illicit can of beer would win over the other students on the floor, who appreciated her friendliness (she joined in on all hallway events, including games of Twister and meetings about protected sex) and also found it a little pathetic.

"You look like their mother in the beginning," she told the Voice,"but you don't act like their mother. There were a series of 'mom incidents' [everyone immediately assumed she was the loving parent of whomever she was standing next to], but eventually they began treating me like a peer."

Nathan went back to school, after more than 15 years of teaching, because she no longer understood her students. They never did their reading and when they came to class, they slept or played with their cell phones; "I was on the verge of being offended," she said. In My Freshman Year (out this month from Cornell University Press), a series of essays about her two semesters as an undergrad, she never reveals the name of the university ("Rebekah Nathan" is also a pseudonym), but describes it as both a big state school and—in a more academic moment—"a remote overseas village." She takes "censuses" of all the flyers in the hallways, scrupulously writing down mundane messages like "Good luck with classes!" or "Come on in." No one ever asked her what she was doing. According to rumor, she was hiding from a traumatic divorce.

For all the drama of going undercover, though, Nathan's revelations are relatively predictable, confirming—scientifically—a rush of college stereotypes. After delving into the art of door decorations, she impressively outlines seven "genres" of photos. In each image, students carefully arrange themselves into positions that will convey something like "Here I am being fun and spontaneous!" They stick out their tongues or butts, or point at each other, mouths open, in mock surprise. In one particularly popular pose (type no. 6), a mixed-gender group lies on the ground, each person's head resting on the next person's stomach. The shot is taken from above. Everyone is laughing. Accompanying the photos are strings of words and phrases, cut from magazines, which round out the image of this perfectly irreverent dorm resident: "Friends don't let friends party naked; Bitch; 24 Hours in a Day. 24 cans of beer in a case. Coincidence? I think Not. Z-man!!"

Nathan said she never overheard a conversation about the actual content of a course, only whispered questions like "When is the paper due?" or "What is the font size?" During her second semester, she went around campus asking people if there was "any course you think I shouldn't miss." After getting the same response from almost every student, she took their suggestions and enrolled in a class called "Sexuality." When the teacher walked in and immediately began using the word fucking, the 19-year-old next to her whispered, "This guy is so cool!"

Michael Moffatt, an anthropology professor at Rutgers who spent four semesters living in the college dorms in the '70s and '80s, found students similarly disposed toward "friendly fun," as he puts it. While Nathan spent all her time on campus, Moffatt dipped in just one night a week, carefully graphing—with triangles, squares, and dotted lines—the evolution of friendships down the hall. He interviewed more than 200 students, and eavesdropped on their late-night conversations by pretending to fall asleep in the common lounge. One roommate accused him of being a "returned Vietnam Vet infiltrating the system." The title of his 1989 book about the experience, Coming of Age in New Jersey (a play on Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa), situates his research process within a familiar framework. Carefully keeping his polysyllables under control, he deconstructs the culture, dividing students into romantic categories like "Neanderthals," "Sluts," and "Good Women."

Although the focus is less sexual, Nathan and her "remote village" rely on similar metaphors. When she told other faculty members about the project, they thought she was "on the verge of crazy." Three colleagues individually came up to her and said the idea reminded them of Black Like Me, the 1961 bestseller by John Howard Griffin, a white writer who dyed his skin and then traveled throughout the South. "Likening my projected freshman experience to changing one's racial identity in the 1950s," she writes, "said volumes about the psychological distance educators perceive between their world and that of their students." She altered her appearance in just a couple of minor ways, but the few times she ran into colleagues on campus, they didn't recognize her: She was wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a backpack.

Even in classes, she had no trouble hiding her identity—she was a dismayingly solid-B student and resented when professors assigned things just for the sake of an "interesting read." In engineering, she was the worst one in the room. "I asked stupid questions. People would look at me. I had to go to the tutoring center."

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