In 1977, on a whim, I decided to try passing as an overage, out-of- state freshman for the first few days of the fall semester at Rutgers College. I had been on the Rutgers faculty for four years at the time. My serious anthropological interests then lay in south India, but it would be some years before I could get back into the field. Meanwhile I wanted to practice my professional skills. I was curious what a big, confusing institution like Rutgers looked like from a worm's-eye view, and I wanted to know more about the undergraduates I was teaching in large, often impersonal classes. For already, by the age of thirty-three, I no longer understood my students. By 1977, my own college years, the early and mid-sixties, were beginning to feel like very distant times indeed.
My little foray into the dorms was not likely to develop into serious research, I thought. It really would not be wise if it did, for in cultural anthropology, your professional prestige depends on how distant, exotic, and uncomfortable your research site is. 1 But what harm could a little underground investigation of the undergraduates do? At the very least, it would be fun to see if I could get away with it. 2
I made my arrangements, and on a hot Saturday morning in early September I showed up at one Gates Hall, in the main cluster of dormitories on the old College Avenue Campus of Rutgers (see map 1), dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers and carrying a battered old suitcase. 3 Nobody in the dorm would know who I was, I'd been told. I was typically late sixties in appearance at the time--long-haired, with a moustache and wire-rimmed glasses. I was alone. All around me were students in similarly casual dress, with somewhat shorter hair, accompanied by their better- dressed parents, unloading carfuls of clothes, stereos, and other personal possessions. As I waited for the elevator to take me up to my floor, I began to have second thoughts. I would never get away with this. Perhaps I should just confess my real identity from the beginning: Hi, I'm a Rutgers professor, here to study you for a few days. Please don't pay any attention to me. But when I arrived on the third floor, a nice-looking young woman greeted me in a friendly but practiced manner: "Welcome to Rutgers! Are you a new student? Tell me your name and I'll tell you what room you're in. My name is Melanie. I'll be your preceptor this year."4" Mike, Mike