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Uncommon Reading

Before first-year students even arrive at Kalamazoo College they are shaping their class into a cohesive educational community. By way of K’s Summer Common Reading program, now in its 15th year, incoming first-years read the same book at the same time, connecting not only with their classmates through this common-but-uncommon experience but also with the many faculty and staff and the significant number of current students who also read the book and together share their insights afterwards.

The 2013 Summer Common Reading author Vaddey Ratner greets a Stetson Chapel audience with the namaskara, a Buddhist hand gesture that evokes utmost respect and adoration for the divine in everyone.

“It gives the students something to talk about, something besides ‘where are you from?’” says Dean of the First Year and Advising Zaide Pixley. “It’s all part of the teaching moment.”

Pixley helped launch and expand the Summer Common Reading program in 1999 and subsequent years.  “I love to read,” Pixley says. “And I wanted to give students a way to enter the world of ideas.” In 2000, with the support of the Provost’s office and Student Development, the program became official.

“The first book we chose was Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver,” says Pixley. “But we didn’t ask the author to come to campus. We soon decided that should be one of the criteria—that the author be here for orientation, meet with the students, and later, if possible, return for that class’s commencement.”

The book of choice in 2000 was Independence Day by Richard Ford, an author whom then-Provost Greg Mahler knew personally and had invited to attend. Writer-in-residence Diane Seuss, Professor of English Andy Mozina, Mahler, and Pixley were the original members of the committee that chose the books and organized the events. Membership on the committee has changed over time. Associate Professor of English Marin Heinritz was a member for many years and was responsible for bringing to campus journalist David Finkel, the program’s first nonfiction writer. Neither she, Seuss, nor Mozina are active members of the committee today, but Pixley’s presence has been a constant.

Is the reading experience relevant, even (or especially) when a book’s protagonist differs significantly from the predominantly 18-year-old readers?

“Oh my,” Seuss chortles, recalling the first-year students meeting the Ford. “A student asked Richard Ford how he expected young people to relate to his middle-aged, white male real estate agent protagonist. His answer: ‘Are you a Danish prince? If not, then don’t read Hamlet!’”

Mozina nods. “I’ve seen great discussions happen. I often see the energy grow during the course of the author’s time on campus, with students saying that now they understand and like the book a lot better than they thought they would, or did initially. By the time some authors left, the students seemed ready to adopt them.”

As the criteria for the book choice developed, Pixley made one point immoveable.

“The author must come to campus,” she says. “We look for someone who makes a good guest, who is an engaging speaker and enjoys interacting with students. That’s what makes our summer reading program different than the programs at many other schools—the presence of the author.”

Committee members meet to discuss new and upcoming authors that fit the bill.

“New book and author choices are challenging,” Pixley admits. “We have no flexibility on dates. They have to be here when the first-year students come in. We look for books that have been nominated for prizes, books that are being talked about. Although she isn’t on the committee this year, Di [Seuss] is very plugged in, she has 2,000 Facebook friends and they are almost all writers. An A list and a B list begins to take shape, and we get student peer leaders involved, too.”

Committee members read lots of books and talk about authors who might be an appropriate and feasible guest. Criteria include the content of the book, of course, the way in which it can represent a boundary-crossing for the students, and an author who is willing to be here and participate in person. “We all keep our eyes out for ‘the next big one,’” said former committee member Seuss, “often finding the perfect fit with a younger author on the rise, like Chimamanda Adichie, who visited us with her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, and has since won the Orange Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and a MacArthur Fellowship.”

Gail Griffin, professor emeritus of English, has been involved with the program since its inception. She adds: “We’ve often joked about it: either the day before or the day after an author visits, she or he will get a MacArthur award/Pulitzer Prize/National Book Award nomination. The track record is quite amazing; it defies logic.”

The 2014 Summer Common Reading author NoViolet Bulawayo signs books after her Thursday evening reading. More than 300 students waited in line to speak with Bulawayo, and she signed everyone’s book.

“It has to be good literature,” Pixley states. “We look for something that is engaging to young people and doesn’t come with 400 pages of footnotes. Coming of age themes are good, and we want a book that is intercultural in some way, and that doesn’t have to mean that the book has to be about different countries. Detroit can have a different culture from Kalamazoo, too. We look for books that can foster intercultural understanding.”

The book choice of summer 2014 covers that cultural boundary, in fact. Incoming members of the class of 2018 read We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. The 2013 debut novel depicts the impossible situation of the person in exile, in this case a child leaving a beloved homeland beset with political turmoil and violence, poverty, starvation, and illness. As she grows to adulthood in a new place she realizes that she is caught between two cultures without being home in either. Bulawayo won the 2014 PEN-Hemingway Award, the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, and the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2014. The novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.

Anna Gough ’15 is a first-year experience coordinator along with Bryan Olert ’15. Both experienced the value of bonding over a book that often pushed their comfort zones.

“I still think about the book we read when I was a freshman,” Gough says. “In 2011, it was The Good Soldiers by David Finkel. I would never have picked it up on my own.”

“It’s really the whole idea of liberal arts,” Olert, a history major, adds. “The Summer Common Reading program challenges you to read outside of your field, all over the field.”

Now seniors, Gough and Olert helped plan all of this year’s first-year events, and both consider the reading program their favorite.

“As an English major, it was fun to organize something I enjoyed so much in earlier years,” says Gough. “I felt like I was a part of creating the future for the new students.”

“And it’s great job experience in event planning, networking, organizing,” Olert adds.

Beginning to end, the Summer Common Reading program has drawn together not only freshmen, but the entire campus, as older students find themselves picking up the chosen book as well, wanting in on the hot topic of the campus. Faculty and staff are involved, too, teaching to the book or participating as discussion group leaders.

“The program asks a lot of faculty,” Pixley admits. “Yet K faculty members are always game. I’ve been asked—how do I get people to read the book and lead discussion groups? People here are willing to step out, willing to try new things.”

“We prepare the peer leaders and discussion leaders, write a lesson plan, host the guest, and do all of the often complex negotiations with agents and publishers to bring the next writer to campus,” Seuss says.

“I can tell you that very few people comprehend the work involved,” says Griffin. “In choosing the book, in negotiating with the writer to come to Kalamazoo, in organizing the visit and the sub-components of the visit, in turning around the students’ submitted questions and consolidating them for the author, in shepherding the author around. That detailed, thoughtful, exhausting work is what has made the program go.”

While the committee does prepare a lesson plan and suggested questions for the discussion group leaders, Pixley says that “everyone is free to improvise as they see fit.”

Reading contemporary books rather than classics, Pixley says, is another aspect of the program that differentiates Kalamazoo College from other institutions that have started similar programs.

“The National Association of Scholars singled us out as being subversive in our book choices,” Pixley smiles. Challenging students to think and question, however, is part of the program’s goal.

Says Seuss: “Each book lands differently, and each entering class receives it in its own way. What I love is that the reverberations continue long after the writer has left campus; students live with the book, in one way or another, for the rest of their lives. Students in my first year seminar often refer back to the book or something the author said, and I hear seniors doing the same thing. Maybe the best sign of the program’s success is when we witness students struggling to make connections, to approach and understand differences.”

“Our student body is more diverse than ever,” says Stacy Nowicki, library director at Kalamazoo College’s Upjohn Library and a member of this year’s committee. “We have students from many different areas in the United States and the world and from different socio-economic backgrounds. The Summer Common Reading book helps students learn to interact with someone different than themselves. It gives them entry to each other. This summer’s book is about the immigrant experience, and any student coming to Kalamazoo College may feel like they are immigrating to a new community. Through discussing the book, they can bring up their own issues.”

Nowicki joined the committee this year because of her involvement with the Reading Together program. Reading Together is administered by the Kalamazoo Public Library and has much in common with Kalamazoo College’s program. In both, an entire community reads the same book, joins in discussion, and meets the author.

“Success is [the] struggling to make connections, to approach and understand differences.”

“The important thing is for students to feel connected,” Nowicki says. “It’s a good way for professors and staff to get introduced to the incoming students, too. I’m guessing in that way it helps retention. And the discussion groups help students learn how to express their viewpoints and defend them while listening to the viewpoints of others.”

Griffin adds: “If you lined up all the books that have been chosen, they cover an amazing array of contemporary writers and a mighty inclusive list of perspectives and issues of the sort that we want our newest students to begin thinking about: race, economics, global politics, gender, sexuality, nationality, international issues, American issues, immigration, ‘home’ and leaving home, you name it.”

Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of the 2012 Summer Common Reading book, Once Upon a River, offers her perspective as a participating author. “It was a great honor and a thrill to have all the freshmen and many of the upper class folks read Once Upon a River. Kalamazoo College students are conscientious scholars and careful readers, and they had a lot of smart questions to ask. The world I presented in the book was very different from the world of the students, so it was interesting to see how they grappled to understand the choices my protagonist made, which were often so different from what they would have chosen. As an author it is always great fun to be surrounded by smart people who have read your book.”

Pixley smiles to recall some of the discussion around Campbell’s book. “Oh, I’m still hearing complaints about Margo, Bonnie’s character in the novel. Why did Margo do this, why did Margo choose that. But Margo had different circumstances in her life, and it was a different time. It’s wonderful how invested students can get.”

The interaction between author and students, all agree, can be one of the most rewarding parts of the experience.

“So often their first reactions to the texts have been resistant, defiant, because the committee has rightly selected challenging texts at the forefront of current fiction, and that material is often difficult, not easy reads,” says Griffin. “And then you watch them come to terms with it, chew on it, hear the author, stand in line for hours to meet the author, and suddenly—the book is theirs. I have seen an incoming class become a class over three days because of this program.”

Seuss lists favorite memories of students interacting with authors: “Chang-Rae Lee flying out of New York City and joining us just a few days after September 11, 2001. The students starting a Chimamanda Adichie Adoration Facebook page. Junot Diaz’s sass. Vaddey Ratner talking about her childhood as a captive of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the way she greeted people with the namaskara, her beauty.”

Heinritz most strongly recalls the moments “students got turned on by what they’d read or something the authors said. Often, years later they would bring up something Junot Diaz or David Finkel had said about writing when they were on campus, and it would become part of the fabric of that day’s class discussions.”

She also cites the generosity of the authors. “So many of them agree to offer a craft talk for student writers while they are on campus,” Heinritz says. “David Finkel got real with journalism students about what the profession requires and where it is headed. Bonnie Jo Campbell gave practical advice to aspiring fiction writers.” Finkel even offered to read and critique Heinritz’ writing, “which he did and was very helpful,” she says. “I consider him a friend. I know Di has also developed this kind of relationship with a couple of the authors, especially Chimamanda.”

Pixley nods. She remembers many of those moments, and more. The Summer Common Reading program is her labor of love.

“It’s a thrill,” she says. “To hear an author reading to the students, and the students are so quiet, listening so carefully, that you can hear the pages turn.”

SIDEBAR

Summer Common Reading Program Books

(1999 Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams)

2000 Richard Ford, Independence Day

2001 Chang-rae Lee, A Gesture Life

2002 Ha Jin, Waiting

2003 Ann Patchett, Bel Canto

2004 Aleksandar Hemon, Nowhere Man

2005 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus

2006 Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated

2007 Edward P. Jones, The Known World

2008 Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

2009 Rachel Kushner, Telex From Cuba

2010 Colson Whitehead, Sag Harbor

2011 David Finkel, The Good Soldiers

2012 Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River

2013 Vaddey Ratner, In the Shadow of the Banyan

2014 NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

“Next” Questions

May 2014, the first ever Kalamazoo College Economics and Business Development Senior Individualized Project (SIP) Symposium was underway, and the excitement at Hicks Center was palpable. President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran walked from project to project, leaning in to examine the details, taking time to question the seniors. The economics professors mingled, glowing like proud parents.

President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran asks senior economics and business major Kari Paine about her SIP.

“For me, seeing these SIPs is seeing the culmination of a K education,” President Wilson-Oyelaran said, pausing between posters. “We are seeing the power of faculty mentorship. I’m thrilled the department of economics and business is doing this. I hope it will become a tradition.”

“It will be!” assured Ahmed Hussen, the Edward and Virginia van Dalson Professor of Economics. “This is our new tradition. We had workshops with the students and saw great improvements—we had only 14 of our majors participate this year, but we expect the symposium to grow over the years.”

Topics varied greatly: crowdfunding and the lean startup; new growth opportunities in Detroit; economic analysis of property rights in outer space; measuring the effectiveness of a buy-local campaign; economic impact of hosting the Olympics; analysis of produce pricing dynamics in Kalamazoo; effects of patient protection and the Affordable Care Act on the medical cost trend; a marketing plan for a luxury travel planning business in Spain; and more. Something for everyone, yes, even those who might one day prefer to live in outer space.

Among students, faculty and administration, and here and there the proud family members of seniors, wandered Will Dobbie ’04. A decade from his own school years at K, where he majored in economics with a minor in political science, he has made a name for himself as a result of his research on school effectiveness. Dobbie today is an assistant professor himself, teaching economics and public affairs at the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs. He was back on campus to deliver the keynote address for this inaugural symposium.

“When I received the invitation to speak at K,” Dobbie said, “I wondered – about what? Then my fiancé reminded me. She said, ‘Everything you do, Will, everything you are today is because of K. Talk about that.’” Dobbie smiled. Obvious. His talk on this evening at K would be about the value of a liberal arts education in business.

“We raised the bar immeasurably this year,” said Timothy Moffit ’80, associate professor of economics and business, in his remarks at the dinner that concluded the symposium. “All in the spirit of learning,” he said. “Friction was natural in this process of making improvements. It was the friction of change.” Then Moffit introduced Hussen, who serves department chair as well as (in Moffit’s words) “the SIP czar.”

Senior Katie Moffit answers discusses her research with “SIP Czar” Ahmed Hussen.

“I loooove talking about my former students!” Hussen crowed, and his audience laughed. “It’s a way for me to brag about what I’ve done, to claim that everything this former student has done is because of me,” Hussen smiled. Then he became more serious.  Will Dobbie, was special. Will, Hussen explained, earned the highest grade he had ever given a student.

“Will Dobbie’s SIP on the decentralization of government in Kenya is one of the best, still, that I’ve seen,” Hussen said. After K, Dobbie earned his master’s degree in economics at the University of Washington, and his Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Just a few weeks prior to the economics department SIP symposium, he had been in Kalamazoo to receive the W.E. Upjohn Institute Dissertation Award for best dissertation on employment. In addition to his teaching at Princeton he serves as a research fellow at the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University.

Dobbie’s speech that evening was titled “The value of an (economics) liberal arts education,” and Dobbie illustrated that value by talking about his November 2011 study, “Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City,” in partnership with Roland G. Fryer, Jr.

In their study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dobbie explained, the two professors compared 39 New York charter schools to find out if the charter schools were any more effective than traditional models of education. Did class size make a difference? Would spending more money per pupil improve quality of education? Did teachers with more credentials and advanced degrees teach better?

Quite simply: no.

Dobbie and Fryer state in their study: “Improving the efficiency of public education in America is of great importance. The United States spends $10,768 per pupil on primary and secondary education, ranking it fourth among OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Yet, among these same countries, American fifteen-year-olds rank 25th in math achievement, 17th in science, and 12th in reading.”

When the two conducted interviews with school principals and teachers, studied lesson plans and conducted student surveys, made video observations, and examined homework assignments, the usual remedies to improve the quality of education made no measurable difference in student outcomes.

“We looked at social outcomes, we looked at health outcomes, we looked at crime outcomes in terms of incarceration,” said Dobbie. “The conventional solutions were ineffective. We seem to be spending a lot of money on education, but not getting a lot out of it. Everything we’ve tried, if it worked at all—it was barely.”

What Dobbie and his research partner did find was that looking at a child’s life in the classroom was not enough. Other influences in that child’s life could have just as much, if not more, effect on how well a child does in and after school, throughout life.

“Community programs also seem to have little to no effect,” Dobbie continued. “Yet they are fantastically expensive. Head Start, for instance, as popular as it is, does show some positive effect, but it’s very small.”

“Everything you are today is because of K. Talk about that.”

So what does make a difference? What are the magic buttons of quality education? Dobbie smiled as he gave the answer, and more than one audience member reflected that smile. What he described often sounded like a description of a Kalamazoo College education.

“It’s basic stuff,” he said. “The five tenets of effective schools are: extended day, week, and school years; individualized tutoring; rewarding teachers for performance and holding them accountable if they are not adding value; data-driven instruction, with students being assessed frequently, then being retaught the skills they haven’t yet mastered; and students buying into the school’s mission that education will improve their lives.”

No surprised faces lit up in the audience. Preaching to the attentive choir.

“Charter schools educate only about five percent of our kids nationwide,” Dobbie said. “Can we duplicate their success in traditional schools? When similar policies were implemented in 20 of the lowest achieving schools, they worked. They worked everywhere. Having high expectations for kids, expecting them to go to college, was effective. Making them fill out just one college application, that alone increased the number of students going on to college by 10 percent.”

More: in schools where the five tenets were implemented, incarceration rates dropped to zero. Education proved to be the solution to keeping kids away from crime. Teenage pregnancy rates also appeared to take a dip.

Dobbie then flashed the next question on the screen above him. It said: “The value of a K education?”

“Passion,” he began. “Intellectual creativity and flexibility. Critical thinking, or asking the ‘obvious’ question. Professors at K really care about their students. When I was at K as a student, when there were speaking events, we had standing room only—people were that interested. People at K study what excites them, not just what they should be studying. That’s passion.

“We develop critical thinking skills. When we wrote a paper, we didn’t just write the facts, but how they fit together. As it turns out, that is remarkably rare out there in the world. Asking the obvious question seems normal to us at K, but out there,” Dobbie raised a hand and held it out in a gesture that would encompass the world beyond the campus, “out there, asking that obvious question is incredibly rare. Even rarer is what K students learn to do well: ask the next question.”

Dobbie’s words seemed to resonate with the K students in the audience. When he opened the room for questions, the passion to which he’d referred was evident. He was peppered with “obvious’ questions and “next” questions.

Why is education not a priority in the United States the way it is in some other countries? How to get past the political pushback of extending the school year? What about funding? What is corporate responsibility and how does one get corporations involved? What are the incentives? It was a lively interchange of passionate inquirers.

“So many people do things by default,” Dobbie concluded. “People choose their jobs because that’s where Dad worked or what Mom did or wants. I wanted to do what I wanted to do.”

For Dobbie, what he wanted to do and what still drives him as a lifelong learner today is to keep asking the next question.