Don’t get me wrong; I loved The Grapes of Wrath. Likewise, it seems clear that The Great Gatsby, Antigone and The Trial are all important works, all worth reading. Further, literature — art in general — opens windows into different lives and ways of viewing the world, while simultaneously allowing for reflection; it informs the way we relate to each other and sheds light on our own ways of thinking and how we understand the world. The New Student Reading Project, which requires students to read one book prior to arrival on campus and attend a lecture and discussion, has the potential to foster community around a unified common interest — something incoming students could undoubtedly benefit from. So, it’s neither the books nor the intentions that cause the Cornell New Student Reading Project to fall short, but rather the execution.
My freshman year, 2009, incoming students were asked to read The Grapes of Wrath. Of course I did, and I do think that everyone should. However, the scheduled activities and discussion of the novel did more harm than good. We broke into small groups within the dorm and generally covered the broadest themes — Wikipedia would have done as well. Most students hadn’t read it, and we were all much too timid to spew opinions on our first day. What’s more, it became quickly apparent (to those to whom it wasn’t from the beginning) that the page-long response we were “required” to write would soon disappear into a labyrinth of anonymity and never be alluded to again. Unless, of course, you win the $200 worth of books from the Cornell store — evidently the sole purpose of writing the essay at all. The activities provoked more apathy than enthusiasm.
However, the experience most students gain from the reading project falls short of the potential in the resources and activities offered. The Reading Project already includes a series of lectures by professors in various departments that cover relevant aspects of the given novel. This year’s lectures on E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley included themes and departments as varied as: “1918 Influenza and Other Pandemics: What is Next?” by Prof. Laura Harrington, Entomology; “Engineering, Design, and the Odd Ideas of Langley Collyer” by Prof. Matthew Miller, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; “It Has to be Simple so that Anyone Can Sing It: Popular Music and Genteel Poverty in Homer and Langley” by Prof. Steven Pond, Music. These represent only a few of the given lectures of Homer and Langley.
Clearly, the Reading Project makes an effort to appeal to the interests of a range of Cornell students and not just those predisposed to studying literature (curiously, none of the lectures were given by a literature professor at all). And, these lectures do take place before the discussion. The New Student Reading Project holds incredible potential for turning these lectures and discussions into something worthwhile. However, the project lacks any accountability on the student’s part, making it easy for students to take it in jest. Further, the discussion groups are assigned according to dorm room, not according to a relevant lecture, which leads to aimless and excessively generalized discussion.
Instead, why not rearrange the structure of the project and provide a more substantial follow-up to new students’ required reading? Rather than an obligatory page-long response and forced small group discussion, the project should require students to choose a discussion specific to one particular lecture — ideally run by professors in the same field. Then, the assigned reading would have a meaningful application specific to each student’s interests. Students may find something valuable to say, and discussion groups would encourage them to think about what they consider important and why, instead of just glossing over general themes. This way, students could apply the given reading, which they may or may not have had a particular affinity for, in ways they find worthwhile. This would in turn foster the desired sense of community, generate some enthusiasm for the material and realize the potential value of the reading project.
Ruby Perlmutter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be contacted at email@example.com. Having Said That appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.