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.
The Freshman Reading Round-Up
will remind them.
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
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.”
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
“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
and got Cokes with them at the Posse near campus.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
Photo illustrations: Leslie
Ernst and Marsha