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Common Reading Selected

By Sarah Rutledge     5/15/08 7:00pm

Those who were hoping next year's common reading would be the timely political memoir by Allen Raymond, How to Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative, may have to wait until the 2012 presidential election. This month the common reading committee reached a decision, selecting Greg Mortenson's memoir, Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time, which they have since distributed to Orientation Week coordinators, advisers, resident associates, college counselors and next year's incoming class.The common reading committee met before winter recess and periodically throughout the spring, and is made up of undergraduate students, including former O-Week coordinators, a faculty member, a graduate student and Assistant to the President Matthew Taylor.

Taylor said the committee considered more than 30 books before narrowing the choices to How to Rig an Election and Three Cups of Tea.

"The process of elimination [was] driven both by topics we thought would be interesting for the campus at large, and we wanted a book that new students would actually read when they got it in the mail and that would keep their interest," Taylor said. "We wanted a book that would appeal to both faculty and students from many different disciplines."

A main issue the committee faced with its two common reading finalists was that of cost. How to Rig an Election was only available in hardcover, while Three Cups of Tea was available in paperback. Three Cups of Tea cost the university $6 per copy, half the cost of How to Rig an Election, and the university ordered 1,300 copies for incoming students as well as O-Week personnel. He said the Three Cups of Tea publisher was also able to send the books to Rice more quickly than the publisher of How to Rig an Election, so the university was able to send off copies to all entering freshmen and distribute copies to O-Week advisers and coordinators before they left campus for the summer.

Taylor said the committee took student comments from last year into account. He said last year's common reading, Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change, drew some criticism for being a dry read. He said this year's committee, however, was the first to consider works of fiction as possibilities for the common reading.

"This was the first committee that said, ‘We want a topic that's going to generate passion and strong opinions," Taylor said.

After the committee had narrowed down its two choices, it sent the titles to faculty via e-mail and previewed the books with O-Week coordinators and advisers during adviser training to get feedback.

Taylor said students demonstrated more interest for Three Cups of Tea than for How to Rig an Election. He said the Thresher article about the common reading April 18, 2008 drew many students to express their opinions via e-mail or visits to President David Leebron's office. Taylor said the committee was surprised at the intense level of support students showed for Three Cups of Tea.

"The one thing that was noticeably different between the two was, we had students e-mail or visit to say [Three Cups of Tea] had changed their life," Taylor said.

Taylor said the committee had deemed How to Rig an Election the frontrunner because of its political theme for this election year and because they felt it would be an interesting read. He said the book seemed more suited to facilitate group discussion than did Three Cups of Tea. How to Rig an Election had considerable student support, but many felt its selection could be problematic, he said. He said those who raised objections to How to Rig an Election, however, had not read the book.

"We got really strong reactions to the title, and there was an assumption that the book would be polarizing and that it had an ideological agenda," Taylor said. "The committee paid very close attention to that, and we're confident that the book was not an ideological book, but … I think if we'd gotten more of those types of responses [as with the response to Three Cups of Tea] it would've given us more confidence in choosing that book."

Taylor said he was not surprised by this level of response to How to Rig an Election, however.

"We understood that any book on politics we recommended stood the danger of drawing criticism based on party affiliation," Taylor said. "I think we were surprised by the intensity of some of the responses. At the same time, though, I think we were pleasantly surprised that we had people who had read Three Cups of Tea and had said, ‘This really is a life-changing book.'"

Three Cups of Tea follows Mortenson's time constructing schools in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan and especially his focus on educating young girls in countries dominated by Al Qaeda. Taylor said this book's message fits in with Rice's recent focus on global service.

"It fits into […] President David Leebron's initiative and goal for having Rice students becoming more engaged with the global community," Taylor said. "So when [the committee members] were reading this book, we liked it because we knew these themes and knew we could connect it to that."

Rice's Committee on the First Year Experience, which was created during the 2005-'06 year, first considered the idea of a common reading. Taylor said Dean of Undergraduates Robin Forman and committee chair Rick Stoll spearheaded the initiative to begin the common reading program for its fall 2006 entering class. In summer 2006, articles were available online at the common reading Web site for the entering class

The common reading program is not unique to Rice, however. Taylor said several other universities have similar programs and provide free copies of a book to students upon their entrance to the university. Other schools have a university-wide reading and a few schools encourage non-students from the community to read the book and participate in discussions.

"We're somewhere in between," Taylor said.

Taylor said the selection process for the first common reading articles in 2006 did not take place until late in the spring semester and there were just a few faculty lectures on the readings during O-Week. As a result, the committee made a more concerted effort to select the reading earlier the following year for the fall 2007 entering class, and opened the faculty lectures to the university at large. Taylor said the committee is using the response from last year's common reading program to make changes for next year, including involving O-Week coordinators and advisers more in the selection process.

Rice also conducts a survey of its incoming freshman class on their level of participation with the common reading. Students are asked if they have read all, most, some or none of the book. Taylor said 50 percent of the 2006 entering class said they had read all the articles, while 15 percent said they read most of the readings. He said the results dramatically increased for last year, because of better organization in directly providing students the reading.

The committee is looking to change some aspects of the common reading experience. Taylor said last year's common reading discussions, which were held at dinner the third day of O-Week, elicited negative feedback from many students who did not feel this was an appropriate setting. He said the committee is considering other settings for the discussions, which may involve more than just a conversation between individual O-Week groups. He said the committee is considering having two or three O-Week groups, some from sister colleges, discuss the reading together to give more people the opportunity to share their opinions.

"We will find a better time during O-Week for those initial discussions to take place," Taylor said. "We only have done it once … and what we learned from last year is that dinner's just not the best time to have a discussion, so we're going to try to carve out a clear time period for the discussion and probably have it in a different format."

For last year's common reading, faculty who were experts in global warming gave a one-hour discussion preparation class to O-Week advisers and coordinators. Taylor said this one-hour course was not adequate preparation for advisers and coordinators to lead a meaningful discussion.

"I can tell you, as someone who's taught for a decade and a half, leading a discussion is not a simple thing to do, and to expect one hour of preparation to be adequate, I think, was a bit naïve," Taylor said.

Taylor said he still has high hopes that the program will be a positive influence on incoming students.

"If done properly, it can be a nice transition for them, especially if it's done with their advisers and coordinators," Taylor said. "We're still firm believers in the program, and this is really just [its] second year."

Taylor said not every student has been satisfied by the committee's choice.

"We had some responses from students that were like, ‘Why are we reading a book?'" Taylor said. "An anti-intellectual response […] We're never going to be able to make everybody happy. Last year, there were some folks who objected to the selection, and there will be people that object this year, but I think the dean's office and committee feel good about this book."

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