Coming of Age in New Jersey is an anthropological study of students at Rutgers College, based on participant observation in the Rutgers dorms and on other types of research carried out between 1977 and 1987. This book is more than just a case study of Rutgers, however. It is also about college, late-adolescence, and certain general American cultural notions-- individualism, friendship, community, bureaucracy, diversity, race, sex, intellect, work, and play--in the thought and experience of the undergraduates. The essays that follow attempt to grasp the students' mentalities. But ultimately, of course, the story here is my own; it is my attempt as a cultural anthropologist, a college professor, and a middle-aged American male to explicate, simplify, and give a certain form to the undergraduates' often more inchoate or tacitly held ideas about the subjects I chose to treat.
Conventional accounts of American college students rely on the anecdotal knowledge their professors have of them--a dubious source--or on questionnaires or structured or unstructured interviews. Questionnaires usually require their subjects to respond to predetermined topics, however; with students, they are about what adult investigators have decided should be relevant to youths in advance. Interviews give subjects a better chance to talk and think in their own terms. But interviews with adolescents, especially with glib college adolescents, also encourage subjects to talk in their most formal, adult-sounding ways. Participant observation with the undergraduates, on the other hand, amounts to hanging around with one's subjects for a long enough time to start hearing them in their more natural adolescent tones--very different ones--and to start sensing their own priorities as they understand them. I have tried to capture these distinctive adolescent voices and mentalities below. They are frequently impolite and vigorously vulgar. But they introduce us to realities that other, loftier points of view about college and modern adolescence often miss or obscure.
A collaborative technique also used in this research provided another source of student voices in this book. For two years after the completion of participant observation in the dorms, I taught my preliminary results to many Rutgers undergraduates, and they wrote me papers in reply, correcting and refining my initial conclusions about them and providing me with new interpretations and new information about themselves.