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Commons Reading 2012: A Shared Experience

Posted by on Friday, June 29, 2012 in Academic Life, Commons, Information for Incoming Students, Uncategorized.

Vanderbilt freshmen meet in small groups as part of their first year orientation (VU Flickr)

Imagine a room filled with 1600 people.  These people grew up in cities and states and countries all over the world.  They come from different backgrounds, look and speak differently, and represent different mindsets, values, beliefs, and schools of thought.  They have been raised differently, taught differently, seen different places, gone through different experiences, and arrived in this room on vastly different paths.

Now take those 1600 people and give them all one book.  It could be any book, as long as it speaks to them, challenges them, and makes them think about things they may never have thought about before.  Now get them talking.  Ask them questions about the book, about their reactions, how it made them feel, and what it makes them want to do.  Watch them learn from each other.

This is not a hypothetical scenario from a sociology class – this is The Commons Reading.  Each year, students and faculty are asked to nominate one book for the incoming freshman class to read, and the Dean of The Commons and the faculty Heads of House make the selection.  The book is mailed to the students’ homes in June, and they have the remainder of the summer to complete what you might call their first official college homework assignment.

This year’s Commons Reading is Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.  Nominated by a rising Vanderbilt junior, Half the Sky was written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, a married journalist pair that won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.  The book uses individual stories and social and political context to shed light on a number of injustices currently being experienced by women in parts of Asia and Africa, including sex trafficking, maternal mortality, obstetric fistulas, microfinance, and faulty education systems.  In her review of the book, Carolyn See of The Washington Post calls it “a call to arms, a call for help, a call for contributions, but also a call for volunteers. It asks us to open our eyes to this enormous humanitarian issue. I really do think this is one of the most important books I have ever reviewed.”

The Half the Sky movement, a transmedia project which involves not just the book but a website, a series of short films, and a social media campaign, has garnered support from a number of celebrities and world leaders and is being portrayed as one of the most important fights against human injustice since the end of slavery in the U.S.

Reading this incredibly important work will not be the end of the Commons Reading experience for Vanderbilt’s incoming freshmen.  Half the Sky and the issues it illuminates will be one of the central topics of discussion during Vanderbilt Visions, the freshman orientation program that runs weekly throughout the fall semester.  A number of the Commons programming events will focus on reactions to the book, and both authors will be speaking on campus in the upcoming year.  The Dean of the Commons and ten faculty Heads of House will be posting video reflections to various parts of the book on the Common Place newsfeed throughout the summer.  Students are also encouraged to submit their own reactions to the site, and the most creative submissions will earn a number of students an invitation to dinner at the Dean’s residence with Scheryl WuDunn in September.

The tradition of the Commons Reading has become a form of intellectual connection, not just between students within the freshman class, but across class lines to the students who will come before and after.  A Commons Seminar held this past spring challenged members of the Class of 2015 to devise a plan for teaching the book to incoming freshmen, and the resulting presentation can be found on the Common Place newsfeed.  In the meantime, all students and faculty are being asked to nominate works for the 2013 Commons Reading.

1600 people, one book.  The Commons Reading is more than just a premature homework assignment; it is a launching pad for the intellectual collaboration, discussion, debate, and inspiration that will continue throughout your four years as a Commodore.  Whether you are an incoming freshman in the Vanderbilt Class of 2016 or a current high school student still exploring your options, take some time this summer and pick up a copy of Half the Sky.  Then start talking.

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