Choosing a single book for new students to read over the summer is not easy, writes Carolyn Foster Segal, who teaches English at Cedar Crest College, in Inside Higher Ed. Her women’s college picked This I Believe, a selection of radio essays by famous and ordinary folks assembled by NPR. It’s a popular choice for colleges seeking a common reading experience, supplanting Tuesdays With Morrie. With lots of short snippets, it’s a perfect book for students who don’t like to read, a colleague explained.
This time, the selection was to encompass five areas: leadership, civic engagement, global awareness, health and wellness, and career choices.
I enjoy reading short prose pieces and listening to them on the radio. (But then I also read around 100 full-length books each year, as well.) And it’s difficult to argue with a sample premise like “I believe in empathy” — the line is from Azar Nafisi’s “Mysterious Connections That Link Us All Together” — which is certainly important; besides, it would be churlish — and downright unempathetic — not to agree.
But why not put Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, with all of its connections — instead of this radio spot — into our students’ hands? It’s possible to argue that such a compilation exposes students — quickly — to a whole chorus of voices. And that is true. There’s a cacophony of voices here, on a wide range of subjects — from the pizza dude to God; from the virtues of morning prayer to the virtues of barbecue. And any one of these entries can be consumed and digested in far less time than the 15 minutes of fame that Warhol prophesied for everyone. Skimming the table of contents is like surfing the web.
The book’s brevity was one selling point. It also stresses leadership, which is in the mission statement, and leads to an obvious assignment: Students can be told to write their own “This I Believe” pieces.
Segal no longer wishes to know what her students believe.
Indeed, if you teach freshman writing classes, or any upper-level writing classes, you are already aware that most of your students will do their best to wrench any topic around to the subject of just what it is they believe. No, a much better exercise would be to attempt to understand what someone else believes.
And why not ask students to share a novel or a full-length work of nonfiction, Segal asks. ” There is something engaging, enthralling, and perhaps even transforming about the experience of being swept away by the arc of a sustained narrative.”
There is for me. But, then, I like to read.
I think Reading Lolita in Tehran would be a terrific choice, especially for young women.