Gil Klein, Media General News Service
WASHINGTON - When most anthropologists do field work, they head off to places like Indonesia to study such things as 20th century head-hunting rituals. But when Rebekah Nathan wanted to study a foreign culture, she turned in her faculty parking pass, enrolled at her own university as a freshman and moved into a dorm.
"I had to learn a new language, a new speed of talk," Nathan said. "Much quicker, much more shorthand. It comes from IM-ing (instant messaging). Even the number of "likes" in a sentence marked my age. I had to put a lot more in ... so I talk like I know how he was like ..."
Rebekah Nathan is not the anthropologist's real name. She's not saying where she teaches and did her research -- or even where she was during a telephone interview. Her methods have raised a buzz in the academic community even before the September release of her book, "My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student." After an article and excerpt appeared in the "Chronicle of Higher Education," she was criticized for involving students in her research without their "informed consent." >> continue (Link updated)
Getting Schooled in Student Life. An anthropology professor goes under cover to experience the mysterious life of undergraduates (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29.7.05)
Rebekah Nathan: An Anthropologist Goes Under Cover (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29.7.05)
Undercover Freshman (Inside Higher Education, 13.7.05)
An anthropologist's undercover project raises ethical hackles (The Boston Globe, 7.8.05)
As to the ethical uproar, isn’t the idea of ‘informed consent’ in participant observation fairly problematic no matter what the setting? If you’re trying to get the ‘back self’, then you’re not going to do it by asking everyone you meet and chat with to sign an informed consent. You also shoot yourself in the foot a bit by reminding folks at every turn that you’re a researcher. I’m not advocating deception by any means - I always tell people I work with exactly who I am and what I’m doing. I’ll answer questions anytime I’m asked, but you can’t do good ethnography unless you get outside the role of researcher.
Thanks for the link to Savage Minds. I haven’t been online so often last month. It’s time to write a “summer round up” after the summer holiday. Much to read!
Regarding the ethics-issue: I agree with you - at least if she has anonymized the data about the students. Would be a different issue if she had done undercover-research for the CIA , of course.
That’s really true - the context of the research is important. I am working with kids right now, which of course brings up a lot of ethically touchy subjects.
I’m about to start reading a book called “Analytic Culture in the US Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study” written by Rob Johnston. I wonder how he addressed the challenges of ethngoraphy at the CIA. I’ll let you know!
I’m looking forward to your review. Just found out that the book was mentioned at Ideas Bazaar
I can understand why you would want to go undercover, but pretending you are a student is not needed. Either tell the students what you’re involved with or actually become a student.
I also would like to say that many college students do actually know the names of their instructors. As a freshman in college, I know the names of all my professors. Additionally, I do not know any other students who do not know their professors names.
Indonesia is a wonderful country with amazing people! I completely understand why people want to go places like Indonesia. I spent half a year over there in Papua (former Irian Jaya), and I enjoyed living there so much. Honestly, I would much rather go somewhere such as Indonesia than study college students. Indonesia gave me an unforgettable experience, and the people of it have a rich culture.
Don’t you think she might have learned something by studying her students?
For her as professor, it seems the college students represented a kind of “foreign culture”
“Don’t you think she might have learned something by studying her students?”
Lorenz–there is a gap between students and the person at the other side of the desk. Thats a complexe phenomenon which very much is kept up by both sides. I ve met only a few exceptions who were able (and willing) to bridge it.
I don’t think teaching and researching the same group of students at the same time works well.
But still–what ever research strategy is chosen: it shall not be conducted undercover.