Summer reading, so far, gets positive reviews

With the class of 2011’s arrival on campus just a month-and-a-half away, organizers have yet to hit any major snags in preparing the University’s new Orientation program, administrators say.

A revamped, shorter Orientation was first recommended in January by an Orientation review committee. Orientation programming, which is now slated to begin on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, will feature a streamlined series of class meetings and a more condensed schedule leading up to the beginning of classes, with activities continuing into the first three days of shopping period and the subsequent weekend, which University officials have dubbed “First Weekend.” A summer reading requirement has also been implemented for all incoming first-years.

The summer reading requirement – which calls for incoming students to read a book, write a letter to their adviser in mid-August discussing it and participate in a faculty-led discussion of the book during Orientation – represents one of the most significant departures from past practices, and the Orientation review committee’s report urged caution in implementing it.

“We need to carefully think about how to sell this idea to the incoming class,” the report said. “This initiative will be ineffective if a significant portion of the class (does) not read the book.”

But nine members of the class of 2011 interviewed by The Herald all said they intended to read the book – “How Proust Can Change Your Life” by Alain de Botton – and that they supported the requirement.

Kathleen Braine ’11, a prospective political science concentrator from Columbus, Ohio, said she planned to read the book and that the requirement did not bother her. “We had to read like seven books for my school, so one is not that big a deal. It actually looks kind of interesting.”

Stephanie Van ’11, a pre-med student from Rockville, Md., agreed. “It’s only one book,” she said. “I trust Brown to choose a book that everyone will enjoy.”

Arune Gulati ’11, a possible neuroscience concentrator, said he planned to read the book and thought most of his classmates would do the same. “Most freshmen would be so intimidated by the fact that Brown is telling them to read a book that they will read it,” he said. “It’s a good way to break the ice, to get into discussion on the first day.”

“I am definitely planning on reading it,” said Rita Bullwinkel ’11, a San Francisco native. “I want to be prepared. You don’t want to come in looking like an idiot.”

But, she added, “The only way I know who Proust is is from the movie ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’ “

In “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” the author “has chosen to weave Proust’s life, work, friends and era into a gently irreverent, tongue-in-cheek self-help book,” said a 1998 Publisher’s Weekly review. Marcel Proust was a French author in the early 20th century best known for his expansive seven-volume novel “In Search of Lost Time.”

Copies of the book were mailed free of charge to incoming students last week and were paid for by the Office of Alumni Relations and the administrative offices that run Orientation, said Interim Assistant Dean of the College Carol Cohen ’83.

The book was selected by Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron, who originally proposed the summer reading and Orientation seminar idea to the Orientation review committee. In addition to selecting the book, Bergeron has also taken a personal role in bringing the academic seminars to fruition and appealing to the faculty to lead discussions.

The review committee’s report stressed the importance of faculty participation in leading the seminars and expressed concern about a plan that would require graduate students to take a teaching role during Orientation, but administrators in the Office of the Dean of the College said such concerns proved to be unfounded. A group of 66 volunteers – 54 faculty members and 12 administrators, including President Ruth Simmons – has agreed to lead discussions, said Kathleen McSharry, an associate dean of the College. With just under 1,500 students expected to matriculate in September, each discussion group is expected to accommodate about 22 students.

In an e-mail to The Herald, Bergeron said she was pleased with the response.

“I was thrilled with (the) response (of the faculty),” she wrote. “And I was very pleased that almost half come from math/science fields. So it should be an eclectic mix.”

McSharry said faculty members would be given significant leeway in guiding their discussions as they see fit, but Bergeron said she chose the book because it “is more about life than it is about Proust and that she hoped it would provide first year students with an opportunity to reflect on the importance of new experiences.

Professor of Geological Sciences Reid Cooper is one of the faculty members who agreed to lead a discussion group. In an e-mail to The Herald, he wrote that he was motivated to volunteer because he likes “interacting intellectually with undergraduate students, and particularly outside the constrains of having to sit in judgment.”

He expressed mixed feelings about the book itself, however. “The book chosen, while weird, is provocative,” he wrote. “And provocative is good, particularly if one pursues group discussion.”

He also expressed concern that having students write about the book in a letter to their advisers will not be effective if first-year advisers do not read the book.

So far, other changes have also been implemented smoothly, administrators said.

Perhaps the most significant challenge is posed by the later start to Orientation, said Senior Associate Dean for Student Life Allen Ward, who co-chaired the working group of administrators who helped to implement the recommendations of the Orientation review committee this spring.

Moving the start of Orientation to the weekend was intended to make it easier for parents to bring their children to campus without missing work, Ward said, but administrators have run into one complication – most University offices that students and parents may need information from are closed on the weekend.

Some offices will make arrangements to remain open that weekend, and those that are closed could send representatives to an information fair on the first day of Orientation activities, Sunday, Sept. 2, Ward said.

Many of the changes fell under the auspices of the Office of Student Life, McSharry said. The office was primarily responsible for adjusting the class meeting schedule, another of the main changes recommended by the Orientation review committee.

While some class meetings from past years will remain the same – such as Professor of Africana Studies James Campbell’s presentation on the work of the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which he chaired – others were changed completely. The first class meeting will feature an outside speaker who will discuss issues of drug and alcohol abuse, which is a departure from past formats, McSharry said.