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College Confidential

Few areas have garnered as much subject material in movies, books and television as the four years known as the "college experience."

Whether it's the Greek life depicted in films such as Animal House and Old School or essays on grade inflation and academic standards, these tell-alls about the college experience inspire those on the outside to seek a way into the sphere. Barrett Seaman and a cultural anthropology professor writing under the name of Rebekah Nathan are the latest to try this genre with their recently written exposes, Binge: What your college student won't tell you and My Freshman Year: What a professor learned by becoming a student.

Each book captures a very distinct form of the college experience. Seaman writes on 12 schools, including Duke, that "represent the top tier of mainstream colleges and universities," and Nathan explores life at one large state university that is a "reasonable representative of the places where most U.S. college students go to school." Because of the disparate collegiate niches explored by each writer, neither book provides the all-encompassing look at college life that a reader might expect in these works.

The two authors go about their investigations in very different manners. Seaman's conclusions are based on his own experience as a writer visiting schools over the years, interviewing students and administrators and conducting independent research.

Interestingly, Seaman's inquiries delve deep into the framework of Duke, as he uses 2005 graduate and former Campus Council President Anthony Vitarelli and other students as a crutch to become a Blue Devil insider. Seaman's approach pays off in that he is able to identity aspects of the University typically unfamiliar to an outsider. For instance, he displays some understanding of the physical nature of the campus and how that has changed over recent years. Previously, "fraternities controlled prime West Campus real estate," he writes. But presently, "in the Trinity Park and Trinity Heights neighborhoods off Duke's East Campus, local Durham residents report hundreds of students spilling out of rented homes onto the streets at least three nights out of every week."

Yet, Seaman's living and learning through others can only take him so far. He fails to distinguish between selective living groups and Greek organizations when discussing the state of Greek life at Duke. Critiquing the university's curriculum, he cites the content of several house courses without clarifying that they're half-credit classes taught by students. Additionally, as Seaman throws common Duke terms around, he seems to be doing so in an attempt to feign an insider perspective, or at least a deeper one than he actually has.

Nathan's point of view is threefold: that of a student, professor and cultural anthropologist. In several descriptions, her view is like Cady Heron's from Mean Girls when she views her new classmates as animals from her previous African home. Nathan views the students around her as she does any new village she enters for research. On one of her first nights in the dorm, Nathan opens a beer only to be cited by her residential advisor. She compares her experience to "a famous ethnographic incident," where an anthropologist "found himself running from the scene of an illegal cockfight that was raided by the police." Nathan hopes her alcohol citation will better connect her to fellow students, just as the anthropologist was better able to integrate himself in his community of study.

Nathan does importantly address her limitations as a professor and a cultural anthropologist in her writing perspective. Yet, she does expect students to act in cliched ways. In one instance, Nathan acts as she thinks a student would by suggesting to a study partner that they not review French grammar because it is not on the next-day's exam. When the student disagrees, Nathan is surprised. Nathan admits she has the critical eye of a teacher, but fails to separate this from her investigations as a "student." Because of her age difference, however, she fails to fully engage herself in the university community as an undergraduate. Instead she occupies an awkward position between faculty and student.

Despite the unique perspectives each author brings to the college experience and the different institutions each author explores, neither fully considers the obstacle of age. Regardless of his student sources and research, Seaman frames his writing in his own collegiate experience, when he attended Hamilton College in the mid-1960s. Nathan also struggles with her dorm life, because of her proximity in age to parents rather than students. Innovation can only take these writers so far as their age informs their writing.


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