This I (Somewhat) Believe

Her college's choice for its common reading for freshmen prompts Carolyn Foster Segal to ask: What is the point?


July 6, 2011

What is so fraught as the choice of the freshman reading selection -- the one book that must engage and inspire all incoming students? The single defining text that says, "Welcome to your new world -- a world of joy and sorrow, of new experiences, of possibility." The one book that representatives of anywhere from four to 40 disciplines, in hours of meetings, must agree upon. The one text that will encompass all aspects of the oft-revised mission statement and will guarantee an unprecedentedly high rate of retention.

First-year committees might be tempted to take a page, or freeze frame, from a neighboring college of mine, and choose a film for the required text, but that just seems wrong, and so on we go, in fear and trembling, confident that this time we will find the one perfect book.

We had tried this once before, several years ago. The initial goal was to agree upon a book by a woman about women (we are a women’s college -- at least by day); the final compromise was A River Runs Through It: a novella by a man about two men and fly fishing.

After abandoning the idea of a common reading experience for three years, the college decided to try again. The first-year program was high on the list of projects in the new(est) strategic plan, and the search for the perfect book was at the center. This time, the selection was to encompass five areas: leadership, civic engagement, global awareness, health and wellness, and career choices. After many lengthy debates on texts ranging from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed to Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones to mythology (“The subject is WOMAN,” its advocate proclaimed), the winner was announced: Our students’ reading experience would be This I Believe.

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women is a compilation of radio essays from both Edward R. Murrow’s 1950s program and NPR’s revival beginning in 2005 -- the authors/readers are a mix of “famous” and “ordinary.” My school isn’t alone in this choice: This I Believe may soon, if it hasn’t already done so, overtake Mitch Album’s Tuesdays With Morrie. Another positive point for this choice is that careless young students may inadvertently purchase not Jay Allison and Don Gediman’s book but instead Carlos Fuentes’ memoir, This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life.

I don’t have anything against the book. 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.

Now, not only do I enjoy reading short prose pieces in between longer works, but I also enjoy writing them and have even written and read one for the local public radio station, for a spot called “Change Is in the Air.” The biggest challenge in writing that particular essay -- a valentine for my students -- was cutting my material down to 350 words. The subject of brevity came up very early in the list of reasons that the co-chair of the committee had for choosing This I Believe: as she reminded us, our students don’t like to read.

The response here should be twofold: (1) Ah, but college is just the place to disabuse them of that notion, and (2) I have years of observational evidence to support the idea that you can help students learn to like reading. The other two reasons were the book’s emphasis on leadership, the definition of which we have struggled mightily with ever since it appeared in the mission statement (oh, for the relatively uncomplicated days of critical thinking -- and for the even earlier days preceding the mania for mission statements), and the idea that it would lend itself to a writing assignment that asks students to write their own “This I Believe” pieces.

But what I believe is that there are far better writing exercises. 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 a much better reading choice would be a novel or a full-length work of nonfiction. Why not make a sustained reading experience the first lesson of college? There is something engaging, enthralling, and perhaps even transforming about the experience of being swept away by the arc of a sustained narrative.

If we are going to use the freshman text to teach anything, perhaps it should be this: let’s help students realize for themselves what Mel Rusnov says at the end of her entry in This I Believe, “The Artistry in Hidden Talents”: “I believe we are transformed and connected by the power and beauty of our creativity.”

There’s another reason to choose a full-length work. With cuts in classes -- cuts in humanities courses that served not just English majors but all majors -- students have fewer and fewer opportunities for exposure to literature. If the first-year experience is going to be not only the first, but perhaps one of the last, sustained reading experiences our college students have, then let’s not allow the dialogue to end here, with bytes and mantras.

In the meantime, I have, I believe, found the perfect text for the entering students of fall 2012: Tina Fey’s Bossypants. It’s by a woman -- one who has succeeded in an area that has been far tougher for women than men to break into. It’s 273 pages, but it does include a good number of photographs, which should satisfy the advocates for brevity. It’s very funny -- and reminds us that we can make serious points without being solemn; it’s a nice model of autobiographical writing that isn’t solipsistic; and it even has some (very) wise advice about being a leader, which begins, of course, with hard work.


Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor of English at Cedar Crest College.


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