Columns

Mitra ’18: Revising First Readings

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On Feb. 6, Maud Mandel, dean of the College, emailed members of the Brown community with the final choices for this year’s First Readings program, launched in 2007. I have heard peers discuss the four options and debate their merits, notably hailing Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” Many seem hopeful that the University is making a socially conscious decision by selecting these readings, all of which deal with relevant issues of race and politics. But instead of debating the strengths and weaknesses of the choices, we need to first turn our attention to the failings of the program.

According to Brown’s First Readings website, the program “provides a common reading experience that introduces new students to the University and to the pleasures and rigors of undergraduate academic life.” In other words, it was designed to unite entering students, introduce first-years to college-level assignments and convey the values of the University. This is a lot to entrust to a simple assignment. Unsurprisingly, the program fails to live up to its lofty aims.

As an incoming first-year last August, I remember being excited for First Readings. I loved the idea of sharing a bond with my classmates before meeting them and continuing that bond over spirited debates. I breezed through the assignment within two hours­ — simple enough since “Oil and Water” was a documentary — but paused when I read through the vague prompt.

Given that I love to write, there is nothing I enjoy more than an assignment without a prompt. In this regard, the First Readings seems deceptively casual and liberating; it encourages students to respond to anything in the film or reading and then segue into a discussion of personal goals. This is for the benefit of their first-year advisers who inevitably read their responses.

But the ambiguity is a weakness in itself. Instead of promoting thought-provoking responses, the connection between the reading and personal goals seems unnecessarily contrived. By encouraging personal or even self-indulgent responses, the prompt invites shallow reading. In effect, writers are asked to superficially engage with the ideas of the text or film and muddle them with individual interests; neither material nor self is explored in depth. Moreover, as the assignment is an “informal letter,” it certainly doesn’t introduce students to the “rigors of academic life.”

The First Readings seminars are no less flawed. My seminar was rather dull and became lively only after descending into a bitter, partisan debate with no relation to the film whatsoever. I don’t believe this is a product of lackadaisical moderation or inadequate preparation; the professor for our seminar was consistently insightful, and all of the ideas put forth by my peers were well-conceived.

The problem rested instead with the choice of the assignment. “Oil and Water” is an inspirational film in many ways, but — perhaps as a result — it is not conducive to genuine debate. It was difficult to take issue with the admirable ideas in the documentary.

In my opinion, these weaknesses are by-products of the program’s conflicting aims. First Readings tries to do too much. In one breath, the program attempts to stimulate debate, introduce students to their advisers and inculcate excitement for academia. And if we look at past choices, it is also a surreptitious public relations exercise, inordinately promoting alums’ work and the wonders of the “Brown experience.” Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to achieve all of these aims with a single assignment.

It is time for the University to prioritize the goals of First Readings and make the program more effective. If the University wants genuine responses in the vein of university-level papers, it should allow students to focus on crafting developed ideas without the added necessity of communicating with advisors; The advising letters can be written separately. If it aims to kindle strong discussion on campus, it should choose important but debatable books. And if the focus is indeed on alumni and public relations, it could select more accessible readings to excite students, invite authors to campus or encourage alums to join in the discussion in the classroom or online.

As the First Readings Committee makes its choice for this year’s assignment, I urge it to also consider redesigning the tail end of the program to create a better experience for incoming first-years once they are on campus. This year’s finalists — Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” Kirk W. Johnson’s “To Be a Friend is Fatal,” Claudia Rankin’s “Citizen: An American Lyric” and Kamila Shamsie’s “Burnt Shadows” — are all relevant and strong options. But it is equally important to structure the program so students can gain the most from the books after reading them.

First Readings should pique curiosity, undermine preconceived notions and motivate incoming students for the upcoming leap into college. This could involve giving them the freedom to respond to the assigned material in a variety of media, including short stories, paintings, films and songs. Brown is an institution that embraces creativity and liberal learning in many different forms, and First Readings should not be an exception to this trend. Perhaps we could even offer first-years the choice of several readings, so they could choose something that genuinely interested them. This would ensure that the seminars became passionate, memorable discussions.

Despite my criticism, I truly believe that the program is important and beneficial. I may be in an ever-dwindling minority, but I like the idea of a shared reading experience that gives students an opportunity to read something original and different. Going forward, I only wish the committee would focus on creating a program that actually excites first-years instead of just another summer reading assignment.

 

 

Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu.