Did you read your first year book before Orientation? More important, did you take anything meaningful away from the book or discussion?
Evidently, College officials are learning that the overwhelming response to these questions is "no." At Monday's faculty meeting, President Mills and others addressed the first year book assignment, finding it prudent to temporarily suspend the assignment for incoming first year students in order to revise the structure of the program. As students and faculty have noted, the current format is problematic. Many students neglect the assignment entirely, and those who don't are only rewarded with a 45-minute discussion that is forgotten in the midst of more engaging Orientation activities. To scrap the book, however—even for one year—would sacrifice the primary intellectual component of Orientation. Rather than forgoing the assignment, the College might use this year to test one of many ways it could be revised.
The process of reading over the summer allows us to have a personal, meaningful experience with a text on our own time and terms. Engaging in group discussions during Orientation offers a chance to share our discoveries and insights, forge connections through common experience, and reach a deeper understanding of the text's message to revisit in our four years here.
The program's success, however, depends on first years actually reading and engaging with the assigned text. It is surprising to us that so many incoming students can neglect reading or discussing the book, so quickly abandoning the academic and intellectual commitments made by enrolling at Bowdoin. The level of dedication to reading and responding is insubstantial in comparison to the enthusiasm and diligence with which first year students approach the first few weeks of classes. Those of us who begrudge the reading as a high school-esque imposition, however, misunderstand the value of the discussion.
We suggest that students and faculty get serious about the program, set goals, and implement changes to bring the significance of the first year book back to Bowdoin. The current forum for discussion, consisting of a room of 12 to 15 students and a randomly assigned faculty member, is hardly conducive to conversation.
Perhaps first years could have an initial discussion with their proctor groups and guest faculty member to get things rolling in a familiar setting, then have a second discussion in smaller groups with peers and faculty.
Another option might be to bring upperclassmen into the discussions, encouraging a broader sense of involvement and obligation to complete the reading. Extending the dialogue to other class years would also imply a sense of the discussion's importance and add recurring value and connection across years. Why not try tying the reading into the first year seminar as a supplement to, or substitution for, Orientation discussions? Integrating discussion of the first year book into the classroom might establish a precedent to continue doing so throughout our time at Bowdoin. Further, the College might consider having first years read multiple books. Similar to a core reading list or curriculum at other colleges, having all first years familiar with a core group of texts would allow discussions to carry on in broader contexts, in more classrooms, and among peers with different interests.
Though there are certainly advantages to a liberal arts education that allow us to pursue our own interests, we are strong advocates for the required first year reading. We commend the administration's decision to reevaluate the assignment, but we hope at least some change—even if only a trial—can be made in time for the Class of 2014. And to students: yes, it is the summer, and every last hour seems to count in the weeks before you leave home. But there will be plenty of time to fall behind in reading after the semester begins. For now, our common experience should be an assignment that links us to our peers and professors, and resonates in the weeks and years that follow.