University News

Committee considers adjustments to First Readings program

Aiming to improve first-year engagement, faculty members and students discuss possible changes

Contributing Writer
Friday, December 5, 2014

A new committee is discussing possible changes to next year’s First Readings program, which requires incoming first-years to review the same book or film and discuss their thoughts with a faculty member and peers. Since Dean of the College Maud Mandel announced the committee’s creation in a Nov. 13 community-wide email, some students have responded by suggesting a book that could foster dialogue about race and privilege.

The changes the committee is considering include making the selection process more transparent and increasing student engagement, Mandel said, adding, “I really like the idea of a transparent process for thinking about what is essentially a collective endeavor.”

The committee, which comprises faculty members from various departments as well as two undergraduates, has met once this semester and will continue its discussions after the Dec. 5 deadline for submissions.

A major issue the committee hopes to address is how to increase engagement with the text or film in light of the program’s goal of giving incoming first-years a shared intellectual experience, multiple committee members said.
“Brown is a fairly diffuse, atomized place,” said committee member Matthew Guterl, chair of the Department of American studies and professor of Africana studies. “You want to think as a faculty about how to have a common experience, a kind of touchstone for students to align them together into a cohort.”

Selections in the program have traditionally been texts, except for this year, when members of the class of 2018 were asked to watch the documentary “Oil and Water.”

The program “connects the whole freshman class — that they have this common experience coming in that they can all relate to, and it can spark discussion once they get on campus,” said Timothy Ittner ’18, another committee member. But he and other incoming first-years would “all complain together about the First Readings program,” he added. “I thought it was somewhat unrealistic to expect every Brown student to relate to one piece of literature or one film.”

“This is the one thing everybody has in common, whether they liked it or didn’t,” Mandel said. “Whatever it was, everybody’s engaged in it. So it is a social bridge, and it’s also meant to be an introduction to the kinds of intellectual work they’re going to be doing on campus.”

But “no one book is meant to sum up the entire Brown community or the first-year experience,” she added. “It’s a way to get a conversation going.”

A wide range of texts have already been proposed, though there have also been many repeat suggestions, Mandel said.
In particular, a group of students has organized an effort to propose “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. The students published a column Dec. 2 in Bluestockings Magazine in which they wrote that selecting “The New Jim Crow” would spark conversations about “race, power and privilege” and would be especially relevant in light of recent events such as the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. An editor’s note accompanying the Bluestockings piece urges readers to co-sign the proposal and email it to Mandel.

“Coming from a very different background than a lot of my peers, we’re not all just at Brown. And I think it’s really important to emphasize that point from the beginning — that we’re not all just here in this place, starting from the same starting point,” said Cherise Morris ’16, who worked on the proposal.

“Brown can be, and is, unsafe for many students who hold identities that are oppressed in this society,” said Jamie Marsicano ’15.5, who also worked on the proposal. “We think it’s so important to talk about these issues from the beginning.”

Students involved with the proposal emphasized the potential power of the First Readings program to spark dialogue, as well as the need for increased engagement.

“It’s your first academic experience in a classroom, and to pick a text that’s so, so powerful and so important to talk about that the first relationships you’re forming are a discussion about that, I think is a pretty powerful experience, if done properly,” said Elise Mortensen ’16, another student who worked on the proposal.

The committee has discussed several ideas for increasing engagement, including modifying the assignment that students write letters to their advisers about the text and adding faculty discussions about the text, Mandel said. The committee is also rethinking the follow-up events after the initial First Readings discussions, which often involve bringing the author to campus. These events are often not well-attended, multiple committee members said.

Timing is also an issue — having the initial discussions take place on Labor Day, as they currently do, is a barrier to faculty involvement, Guterl said. The quality of discussions can also be “uneven,” he said, perhaps due to the “huge switch” that students experience at the beginning of college.

First Readings selections can ultimately raise “profound moral questions,” Guterl said. “I think it’s important for students coming into Brown to realize that this is a place that wrestles with those questions.”