What an NAU Professor Learned by Posing as a Student

Professor Cathy Small moves into a dorm

Small
Dr. Cathy Small
FreshmanYear200

Professor of anthropology Cathy Small is one of NAU’s most well-known faculty members. Her book, My Freshman Year, has generated interest from the New York Times, Neil Conan’s Talk of the Nation, and the Today Show. In her book, Dr. Small used the anthropological methodology of participant observation to better understand the contemporary life and practices of American university students. During a leave of absence from teaching, she enrolled as a student at Northern Arizona University (NAU), signing up for a standard first year range of courses.

Small becomes a college freshman again

To develop a greater sense of appreciation and compassion for the first year students’ social, emotional, and academic experiences, she moved into a student residence hall and sequestered herself from family and friends. 

Small describes the experience as “transformative.” On her return to teaching, Small’s students responded enthusiastically to her new sensibilities as a teacher, evident in her classroom style and content. She was voted “Teacher of the Year” in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the year following her freshman year experience. 

"Dr. Small used the anthropological methodology of participant observation to better understand the contemporary life and practices of American university students."

Colleges adjust their teaching styles

Her current ethnographic/applied work continues to focus on the culture of higher education. She has been an invited speaker at more than 30 universities, and her “freshman year” book (My Freshman Year, Penguin Press) is now the basis of efforts at NAU and in conversations around the country to better adjust college structures and teaching to the learning styles of a more pressed and diverse student body.