Since 2007, the University has requested all its incoming first-year students to read a single book (or, in one case, watch a movie) and then discuss it in small seminars during first-year orientation. The First Readings program, as it is called, was designed to create a “shared intellectual endeavor for all beginning Brown students” and to introduce them to the “pleasures and rigors of undergraduate academic life,” according to the First Readings program’s webpage. Past selections have included the film “Oil and Water,” “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander and “My Beloved World” by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Last month, the University announced in a Today@Brown message that the First Readings text for the incoming class of 2022 is “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” by Matthew Desmond. In “Evicted,” the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, Desmond tells the story of eight families who were evicted from their homes in Milwaukee. In doing so, he offers insights into the realities of inequality, race and poverty in urban America. Selected after a lengthy deliberation process, “Evicted” — like the selections before it — has the potential to give first-years a solid opportunity to dive deeply into weighty subjects even before they get to campus and generate timely conversations about pressing issues that can unite the student body in shared reflection.
However, the current structure of the First Readings program does not live up to this potential. As part of the assignment, first-years are tasked with going through the reading and writing short response papers before participating in informal seminars. But without guidance, these papers are generally perfunctory assignments that do not let students exercise their creativity or engage with the readings in innovative ways. Moreover, it is unrealistic to expect a single seminar discussion during orientation week to facilitate long-term reflections or acclimate students to academic life at Brown. After the seminar, the text is largely forgotten in the frenzy of the new semester; in fact, some of us may not even remember our First Readings assignments. Ultimately, the entire exercise feels like a compliance obligation rather than a source of meaningful dialogue.
Going forward, the University should consider reforming the First Readings program to make it a more engaging and sustained experience for first-years. To this end, it can learn from the programs operated by other institutions. Approximately 40 percent of American college orientations involve a shared reading, but several universities take the program further: Stanford, for example, assigned three hefty books, and then invited each of the authors to campus during orientation to share their views directly with students. Other schools host lecture series or events that offer different perspectives on the readings at hand. These are changes that Brown could well undertake. After all, when the University invited Justice Sotomayor to discuss “My Beloved World” in February, the talk added a new level of engagement to the First Readings initiative. Brown should continue in this vein to ensure that First Readings becomes more than just a one-off summer reading assignment.
We firmly believe that the First Readings program is a valuable staple of the orientation experience, and that a revitalized version can more effectively introduce students to the intellectual mission and culture of the University. First-year students stand to benefit from getting an early taste of college-level discussions and analysis. The program can also set the tone for the upcoming year, help forge bonds between students new to campus and generate productive conversations both in and out of the classroom. Unfortunately, as it currently stands, the First Readings program feels like a box that incoming students must mindlessly check off during orientation week. We hope that this changes in the years to come.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19, Mili Mitra ’18, Rhaime Kim ’20 and Grace Layer ’20. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.