As a middle-aged anthropologist going undercover in her university's college dorms, the anonymous author of the most anticipated book on higher education knew her identity would surface eventually.
But not before her book came out.
"My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student" is the scholarly account of campus life in America that is at once unflattering, depressing, and surprisingly empathetic. The book, published by Cornell University Press, is already in its third printing - although it's not scheduled for release until next month. Rebekah Nathan is the pseudonym chosen by the author, ostensibly to protect her students' privacy. The alias AnyU replaced the name of her university.
Ms. Nathan, whether by choice or accident, also planted in her ethnographic study many clues about her identity. She grew up in New York; she's in her 50s; she spent many years abroad observing an exotic foreign culture; her university is located near Las Vegas, is surrounded by mountains, and has a hotel and restaurant management school.
Putting those bits of data together with other clues, The New York Sun has determined that Ms. Nathan appears to be Cathy Small, a professor at Northern Arizona University - or N.A.U. - in Flagstaff.
Ms. Small did not reply to calls and e-mails seeking comment. Both the university and Cornell University Press refused to confirm or deny her authorship of the book.
She is a cultural anthropologist who previously wrote a book, also published by Cornell University Press, about Tongan migration to America, for which she spent time in a small South Pacific village. She - or Ms. Nathan - decided to enroll in her own university when she realized she no longer understood her students.
"After more than fifteen years of university teaching, I found that students had become increasingly confusing to me," she writes. Her undergraduate students, she ruefully observed, declined her invitations to conduct out-of-class research under her guidance, and they frequently snacked or snoozed in class. Some students, she noticed, never took any notes.
Granted permission by her university's research board, she dusted off her high school credentials and applied as any normal student applicant. She even paid for her tuition so that she would have ownership of her notes. Following the footsteps of Michael Moffatt of Rutgers, who wrote a similar study of the undergraduate experience a generation ago, she spent the 2002-03 academic year immersed in the drama of student life. For the most part, she hid her identity as a professor from fellow students, many of whom assumed she was a divorcee who had belatedly elected to resume her education.
From the Federalist Papers to "The Story of O" to "Primary Colors," the wider publishing world is no stranger to anonymously authored works. But seldom do university presses publish books without an author's real name. Transparency is seen as crucial in academic research, and university presses are geared more toward influencing academic debate than to seeking the publicity that anonymous works sometimes generate.
"An anonymous publication for a book that makes scholarly claims would not be appropriate," an editorial director at University of Chicago Press, Alan Thomas, said.
The author of "My Freshman Year" explains in a concluding discussion on ethics that she chose to use a pen name to protect the privacy of the students whom she interviewed and whose experiences she incorporated into her research.
Individual students, however, weren't the only ones shielded by privacy. The AnyU that the author describes is a school with a student body uninterested in learning. Although AnyU isn't a recognized top-tier school, the author seems to be genuinely surprised at the lack of intellectual interest and ambition displayed by the students.
In a passage in the book about overheard dormitory conversations, she writes: "Although my time sample is very limited, I never once overheard what I would term a political or philosophical discussion."
The most popular class by far was a course on sexuality, taught by a "rock star" professor who laced his lectures with "taboo words." The author describes how students were assigned to interview each other in off-campus locations about their sex lives. (Those discussions provoked one of the three instances in which the author voluntarily disclosed her identity to her classmates.)
For the students, the biggest draw to the ivory towers, she found, was "college culture," which encompasses fun, friendships, partying, life experiences, and late-night talks. It's not exactly the message a university administration wants to send out.
The author describes the nightly sights, sounds, and spectacle of dorm room life: the vomiting in the girls bathrooms, the bass thumping that vibrates through the hallways, and the beeps of what she calls "XBX" video game consoles, presumably referring to Microsoft's Xbox.
The author becomes acquainted quickly with the Kabuki dance of dormitory law and order. She's scolded for opening a can of beer in the public lounge but is later informed that resident assistants won't tattle on underage drinkers as long as alcoholic beverages are consumed in their own rooms with the doors shut.
While probing the behavior and beliefs of students, both through day-today interactions and formal interviews conducted as a researcher, she confronts the most baffling aspects of 21st-century college life.
Despite "the rhetoric of student culture," she writes, students are not only studying less, they are also spending less time socializing than students a generation ago.
The reason why, she offers, is that they're too busy holding wage-paying jobs. In addition, efforts to create a more cohesive college community are stymied because the "sheer number of options in college life generate a system in which no one is in the same place at the same time."
While Ms. Nathan offers an unflinching look at college life, in a recent posting to the Inside Higher Ed online magazine, she wrote: "The purpose of this approach is not expose; it's understanding and compassion."