FEATURE — Fall 2006


Introducing the Intellectual Life

In the Freshman Reading Program, first-year students get introduced to the intellectual life of the University, to prepare for a lifetime of inquiry and discussion.

By Kristin Tennant

Summer reading isn't all light for students preparing to begin their undergraduate education at Washington University. But "heavy" isn't quite accurate, either. "Provocative" is how Karen Levin Coburn would describe the book that was mailed in June to all incoming freshmen.

Coburn, the assistant vice chancellor for students and associate dean of the freshman transition, coordinates the Freshman Reading Program, which gives incoming students a common reading assignment they can engage in together as soon as they arrive on campus. Although there are many benefits, the program's main goal is to introduce students to the intellectual life of the University in a way that demonstrates how thinking, learning, and discussing ideally permeate all aspects of university life.

"We want to introduce students to the spirit of inquiry, debate, and discussion ... that will be at the heart of their university experience," says Coburn, who developed the program. "This program gets them thinking before they arrive—not just about what clothes they're going to pack and who their roommate will be, but about what it means to engage with a text, with each other, and with faculty."

First envisioned by Arts & Sciences Dean Edward S. Macias, also executive vice chancellor and the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences, the program has been evolving over the past four years. It provides students with a book to read during the summer, and even before arriving on campus, students take part in discussions and access additional resources on a Web site.

Upon arriving on campus during Freshman Orientation, students participate in a faculty-led discussion on their floor in residential housing. Additional activities, such as Convocation and an essay contest, revolve around the book's themes. Resident advisers also weave the theme into activities in the residential colleges and houses. This year's program has been expanded deeper into the campus community and further into the semester than ever before. Discussions will continue throughout the fall in many classes of varying disciplines, and all freshmen work with the text again when taking Writing 1: Writing Culture.

This year's book complements the spirit of the renaming of the Hilltop Campus as the Danforth Campus and the dedication celebration on September 17, 2006. With the theme of the dedication in mind—"A Higher Sense of Purpose"—Coburn worked with many faculty and staff to choose the book, One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All . The book's author, Mark Rank, the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare in the School of Social Work, is scheduled to speak at Convocation.

The Freshman Reading Program allows freshmen to get to know faculty (below) and each other. This year's book, One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, by Professor Mark Rank, complements the dedication of the naming of the Danforth Campus on September 17; the dedication's theme is "A Higher Sense of Purpose."

One Nation, Underprivileged explores why the richest nation on Earth has the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world--a scenario Rank attributes largely to misunderstandings and myths about poverty. In his book, Rank uses statistics to show how poverty is a mainstream issue, and he asks the question why, in such a wealthy nation, anyone should live in poverty.

"What I like so much about this book is that it challenges our traditional ways of thinking and pushes us to ask what it means to be a part of a community, and what our responsibility is to others," Coburn says. "It also cuts across so many disciplines ... introducing questions that students can pursue throughout their education and life, no matter what path they pursue. So much of what education is about is asking the right questions."

For Rank, those questions include pondering how each of us can use our skills and intellect to "change the rules." He likens poverty to a game of musical chairs with 10 players but only eight seats. Rather than focusing on who does not have a place to sit when the music stops, and why they were left out, Rank urges his readers to ask why we can't figure out a way to provide two more chairs.

Coburn and other Freshman Reading Program coordinators say these questions are critical for students to ponder as they begin their college education, not just as they are preparing to graduate and go out into the world. As Professor of English Dan Shea, who is involved with the reading program and also serves as a faculty associate, put it in a letter that was mailed to students with the book: "By reaching you before your voyage to college, we hope to highlight the heart of the matter of your education—those habits of inquiry and debate that will constitute your claim to effective citizenship in communities beyond the self."

Paul Moinester, Arts & Sciences Class of '08, of Memphis, Tennessee, who is this year's Student Union president, also wrote a letter that was enclosed with the book. Moinester, who went through the program in 2004, says he especially appreciated how it opened conversations with other students living on his floor. (The book he and his classmates read was a collection of readings around the central theme of freedom, including the Declaration of Independence . The book was compiled in anticipation of the Presidential Debate on campus and the 2004 election.)

"It's a good opportunity to get to know the people you're living with on a deeper level," Moinester says. "I learned how they view the world and what they think. It was a great starting off point, and many of us continued the conversations for a long time."

Students also report they value having immediate contact with faculty members outside of the formal classroom setting, says Jill Stratton, assistant dean of students, who is responsible for coordinating the Faculty Associates Program (where faculty work with resident advisers to interact with students outside the classroom).

"The program humanizes the faculty for many students by bringing them out of the classroom into a less-intimidating conversational setting," Stratton says. "This is much more than an orientation initiative—it's a University-wide initiative. Without the faculty enthusiasm and involvement in this, it wouldn't accomplish our goal."

Approximately 70 faculty members, nearly half of whom are faculty associates, from across the University volunteer to read the book and lead the orientation discussion groups. This year, even Chancellor Emeritus William Danforth was slotted to lead a student discussion.

"The Freshman Reading Program is completely voluntary for faculty," Stratton says. "They're enthusiastic and committed, and they really enjoy being with the students in this setting. When the whole University community comes together around something like this, it sends a message to the students that the people here value dialogue."

Kristin Tennant is a free-lance writer based in Urbana, Illinois.

For more information, please visit: http://frp.wustl.edu.