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Every Read Guaranteed: Reading Round-Up spurs incoming freshmen to explore new ideas with top faculty

Like every class before them, the Class of 2008 will arrive on The University of Texas at Austin campus this fall bursting with anticipation. These new students will worry about making friends, negotiating with roommates and exploring eating options along the campus’s bustling Drag. Amid the flurry of their first week on campus, they may forget that the university is foremost a place where inquiry is encouraged and ideas abound.

Students reading on the South Mall

The Freshman Reading Round-Up will remind them.

Incoming freshman have the opportunity to choose one of nearly 30 books to read this summer. They may encounter anyone from Virgil to Herman Wouk, meander through a biography of Abraham Lincoln or return to the world of King Arthur’s court. Then on Aug. 24, they’ll meet with one of the university’s finest faculty members to discuss the book in an informal environment.

The Reading Round-Up recognizes that there are few things as satisfying as a great read. A hearty discussion. An unexpected discovery. And it proves that the university offers all three.

“The Round-Up shows students that this really is a place where we’re interested in ideas and in engaging in open discussion with other smart people,” says Dr. James Vick, vice president for student affairs. “We want students to experience that firsthand.”

I met my Freshman Reading group yesterday and it was wonderful! All in all, a terrific experience for me and, I think, for them. A great way for them to start their UT careers, Professor Charles Ramirez BergThere are no exams, no homework and no grades in the Reading Round-Up. There are no prerequisites, no required presentations and no lists of literary terms. In fact, you might call it a book club—think Oprah, think Barnes & Noble—if not for one hitch. The discussions are led by stellar faculty members who’ve been honored for their work with students.

Every professor participating in the Reading Round-Up is a member of the university’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers. Members of the academy are selected through a rigorous evaluation process, and they represent the best teachers the university has to offer. Instead of waiting to take classes with these professors later on or meeting them in a large class, students can sit down with them in small groups before they’ve even taken their first class.

“It’s really an opportunity to meet one of UT’s most recognized professors before they would have a chance to do so otherwise,” says Lara Harlan, who coordinates the Round-Up. “I think it’s really valuable to make a contact and realize that these people are interested in them.

“Last year we got reports that several of the professors continued having meetings with their group later on in the semester or went and got Cokes with them at the Posse near campus.”

Freshman Reading Round-Up

The informal setting of the Reading Round-Up allows for that type of interaction between students and professors. It also allows students to bring their personal experience to the book at hand.

Last year Dr. Shelley Payne, professor in molecular genetics and microbiology, selected “Ship Fever,” Andrea Barrett’s National Book Award-winning collection of short stories. The title story is about Irish immigrants traveling to North America after the Great Potato Famine. She found that the book drew several students who were immigrants themselves and could compare their own experiences to those of the characters in the story.

“It’s interesting for me to see where the students will take the discussion,” says Payne. “One of the students talked to her mother and learned that her great-grandmother had been one of the Irish immigrants and had experienced many of the same hardships characterized in the book. Reading the story and talking about it gave her an entirely different view of her great-grandmother.”

I really enjoyed being able to discuss ideas and thoughts about the book in a relaxed setting where grades weren't a criterion of the meeting, past Reading Round-Up ParticipantThe selection of books is wide enough and the setting intimate enough that students can really choose something that resonates for them and openly talk about why it does.

This year Payne chose “The Year of Wonders,” a work of historical fiction by Geraldine Brooks. In this case, the book has resonance for Payne. The story of a community that chooses to quarantine itself after an epidemic outbreak in the 1600s, it relates to Payne’s research into bacterial pathogens, including those that cause cholera and dysentery. However, that alone is not what makes her recommend the book.

“‘Year of Wonders’ is also great storytelling,” says Payne. “The students will enjoy the writing, the characters and the plot.”

Many universities choose a single book for the entering freshman class to read and discuss, but the Reading Round-Up offers students a range of books from which to choose. The book selections place a premium on enjoyment and on stimulating discussion. Students might choose the old handbook to financial success “The Richest Man in Babylon” or Bill Bryson’s brand new “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”

Or they can return to the ancient theater. William Powers, dean of the School of Law, is offering a session on “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. He says the story from several thousand years ago remains simply a good story.

Reading Round-Up

“It raises the important issue of how we make the world intelligible: are we controlled by fate, god, free will?” he says. “Put another way, it raises issues about fate and humanism, which are as relevant now as they were in 5th century Periclesian Athens.”

In the end, raising issues and exploring them is the bedrock of a university education and one of the most important things an education can offer a student. The Reading Round-Up is only one morning and only one of many programs—from Gone to Texas to the faculty/staff mentor program—available to help students make the transition from high school to the university. But it offers a relaxed yet stimulating first step into the world of ideas that awaits them.

“I think this kind of experience helps the student learn to take advantage of the wealth of intellectual experiences that the university has to offer,” says Payne, “outside the classroom as well as within.”

Vivé Griffith

Photo illustrations: Leslie Ernst and Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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