Nothing “common” about O-Week summer Common Reading book
Published: Friday, August 31, 2012
Updated: Friday, August 31, 2012 02:08
Some parts of Orientation Week just don’t change, whether you are there as a new student or as an advisor. This year’s O-Week was deja vu for me: I heard Steve Birdine speak again, and it reminded me of how much fun it is to try to be unstoppable every day; I hit the same spot on my butt as the year prior from falling during Brown Skate. I also speed-read through the Common Reading the day of the discussion. Yep, I procrastinated the reading and picked up just a little more than the basic understanding required to convince everyone in the room I knew what the book was about. Everybody reading this who did the same (or less) should come out of the “I-don’t-want-to admit-I-did-not-read-the-whole-book” closet, and everybody who did finish it should not look down upon those who did not, because the truth is that it is not a big deal.
People give the Common Reading program a bad rap because so many skip out on reading the book. It has become common knowledge that not all new students will read the book. When I think back to the feelings of susceptibility to distractions I had when reading during the summer before my freshman year, I remember how they were entwined with my feelings of anxiety about entering college. It is almost as if the summer were the thin buffer between high school mode and college mode, and the reading was the first bit of myself diffusing.
Reading the book reminded me of all the subtle changes I would have to undergo to acclimate to the college experience. It brought up thoughts that made me just want to put down the book and hold on to my home, my favorite coffee shop and my friends. Yet, it was important I got a large portion of these antsy feelings out during the summer and not right before I left for Rice or (worse) during O-Week. Starting the book during the summer brings the pressure of studying alongside one’s peers into a real, immediate and concrete form. This should be what the expectations of the reading are all about.
Some people believe the goal of the Common Reading should be to introduce a topic over which the entire matriculating class can bond, share inside jokes throughout the year and give students something they can overall remember as their book. If we were truly dedicated to this goal, we would just choose a pop fiction book like “The Hunger Games,” send a copy to all new students along with their welcome packets and observe how quickly we could get virtually everybody talking about it. Although we would have achieved the universal participation we were seeking, we would have sacrificed all the other values the reading represents. We need to keep in mind that the participation level is not the most important part of the reading and should not be the ultimate goal.
Since the percentage of people who read the book is not the best measure for grading the success of the Common Reading, what should we use? First of all, we should not simply wallow in a belief that the Common reading will never be a great program because it already is. Too many people work too hard to choose a rigorous and witty book, to lead small discussion groups and to invite the author to speak to us to not give all those involved with the Common Reading the credit they undeniably deserve.
In regards to the Common Reading, all O-Week personnel should ask: Did we impress the value of self-motivation the university life requires upon the new students? The reading is not one of those summer reading assignments for high school English, and it should not try to be. The reading is a taste of the many assignments to come that are an opportunity to put effort into learning something valuable, where ultimately one answers only to oneself.
Did we urge the new students to take advantage of the discussion time? The discussion should be framed less as a required lecture group and more as an optional session. The reading is the first of hundreds of extra opportunities students will see, ranging from TA sessions to office hours, where those who take a special interest in a topic will find others with the same interest campuswide. The demands from these sessions will be the extra effort made for a special topic, and the reward will be the feeling of accomplishment that can be achieved only through hard work and community.
Did we push the new students to speak confidently even when they were unsure? The reading is not the last time students will have imperfect knowledge on a topic. They have to explore it nervously while in a room with many people they do not know during a week that could not possibly be more exhausting. The difference is that this is not a time when failing means a bad midterm grade or when an ineloquent moment negatively affects your attitude about the material for the rest of the semester. This is a place to practice public speaking, analytical thinking and (if nothing else) thinking quickly while talking convincingly.
Now I ask you, how did this year’s Common Reading stack up? With mostly affirmative answers to these three questions, I believe the program did well but has plenty of room for improvement. I hope the new students enjoyed their “College 101” course, with hundreds of O-Week advisors, affiliates, coordinators and others as TAs, and with their whole first semester as their final.
Mauricio Arreola-Garcia is a Brown College sophomore.