The to-do list of the members of the incoming Class of 2014: Buy twin-size sheets? Check. Sign up for a pre-Orientation trip? Check. Complete first year summer reading assignment?
Not this year.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Committee on Governance and Faculty Affairs (GFA) accepted the recommendation to instate a one-year hiatus on the first year book for the Class of 2014. The hiatus does not signal the end of the first year reading altogether. Instead, faculty and staff will use the time to design a more effective program that will be implemented with the Class of 2015, said Associate Professor of Psychology Suzanne Lovett.
The hiatus will offer time for the committee and other faculty members to think about how to better integrate the first year book in to the Bowdoin academic experience.
The summer reading assignment has traditionally provided an opportunity for an incoming class to have an initial shared experience through small group discussions led by faculty and staff during Orientation.
"To be clear, I do not believe that the removal of this program for the Class of 2014 will cause them to be any less connected to each other nor any less well introduced to the intellectual life of college," said Lovett.
Assigned first year summer reading is not uncommon at peer institutions. Amherst invites incoming students to read excerpts from multiple books, while Stanford selects three books for their first year class. Colby eliminated their summer reading assignment in 2007, and replaced it with an essay component entitled "Meaningful Work and Life at Colby."
The GFA Committee questioned the effectiveness of the first year book, citing a lack of integrated and sustained interest in the assignment.
President Barry Mills weighed in on the discussion, commenting on the "mixed experience, at best" that the assignment creates. Mills has run a small discussion group every year since he began his presidential tenure in 2001.
"Students read the book with a differential level of interest. They come to school, there's a 40-minute book discussion, and then in most years there is no integrated or elective experience about that book thereafter," he said.
Mills added that the number of faculty participating in first year book discussions is "not huge."
"My own view is that this is a tradition we ought to re-evaluate so we can decide that it is perfect or whether it needs to be improved," he added.
Professor of German Steven Cerf expressed concern about the hiatus, citing the initial faculty-student exchange as an important component of Orientation.
"This is the only proactive setting between Bowdoin's teaching faculty and the entering student class that takes place at Orientation. Passive listening during panels is not equally engaging," he said.
Cerf added, "Invariably, the first year text poses a set of engaging questions that commence the four-year college journey of inquiry and the embracing of ideas. Immediately at Orientation, the faculty and the staff and the administration are beckoning the entering class into our workshop of research and thinking, of reading and writing."
The summer reading, chosen by a Book Selection Committee of eight faculty members, aims to engage larger, probing questions surrounding current issues and questions.
In a May 1, 2009 letter written to the Class of 2013, the Book Selection Committee introduced the first year book, "The Road," by Cormac McCarthy.
In the letter, the selection committee wrote that they hoped that small group discussions would "begin to lay the foundation for a vibrant intellectual community among your classmates and introduce you to the great intellectual conversation that will continue throughout your four years at Bowdoin."
First years' reactions to the summer reading assignment echoed the concerns of the GFA Committee and President Mills. Many appreciated the intellectual aims of assignment, but found the discussion groups superficial and futile.
"Personally, I enjoyed the actual reading, but when I got to Bowdoin there wasn't much discussion about the book at all. I understand that the primary reason to have summer reading is to facilitate discussion on an intellectual level, but I don't think it was really effective," said Luis Beltran '13.
Beltran went on to say that he found himself entering discussions with his peers on "many more topics such as politics, science, films, and music on the same intellectual level that the book failed to explore."
Sandra Martinez '13 and Jessica Turner '13 agreed with Beltran, citing the lack of sustained discussion on the reading after Orientation.
"I did like the aspect of having a book to read over the summer, but I do not feel Bowdoin did a good job in emphasizing the discussion group about the book. When I look back on my Orientation experience, I do not remember my discussion section," said Martinez.
"Aside from a one hour discussion group, no real end result came from reading it," said Turner.
However, the impact of a given first year book can vary.
As of this January, the first year reading of the senior class was fresh in the minds of many. Over the summer of 2006, the then-incoming Class of 2010 read "Mountains Beyond Mountains," a biography of medical anthropologist Paul Farmer who is renowned for his public health work in Haiti with Partners in Health.
After the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti on January 12th, members of the senior class remembered the discussions about poverty and issues of public health that took place during their Orientation three and a half years ago.
"The book that the senior class read had a pretty big impact...one would hope that there doesn't have to be a natural disaster to make the first year book relevant, though," said Mills.
Mills noted that the faculty was exploring the possibility of choosing a group of readings that would remain as the first year reading assignment for a given period of years. This would provide a shared experience between different classes.
"We don't have many shared academic experiences. Bringing first years, sophomores, juniors and seniors together might make the discussions more interesting," he said.
The Dean's Office, along with the GFA Committee, is currently considering alternative programming to be put in place during Orientation to replace previous book discussion groups.
Danica Loucks '13 expressed disappointment at the book suspension.
"While it may be a relief for the incoming students to not have to get summer reading in, it will be sad to not have that very first experience of real academic discussion at Bowdoin," she said.