New students receive a presidential assignment:
Read Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"
In early August, with summer activities in full swing and anticipation about the start of college swelling, Whitman's soon-to-be first-year students
received their first academic assignment.
A letter arrived from Whitman president Tom Cronin. It wel-comed them to Whitman, doled out the kind of good personal advice that can't be repeated too often, and concluded with this clear, to-the-point instruction: "Finish the Tim O'Brien book, The Things They Carried, before you get here." The paperback book was enclosed with the letter.
Each of the last three years, a summer book has been selected for the entering class, enough purchased for all four hundred incoming students, and the copies mailed to their homes. In 1998, the book was The Visit: A Tragi-comedy, by Friedrich Durrenmatt. In 1999 it was Heinrich Ibsen's play Enemy of the State, and this year O'Brien's book, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1991, was selected.
The idea of making summer reading assignments is fairly common among top colleges, but what makes Whitman's program different is that resident assistants (RAs) and student academic advisers (SAs) lead the discussions.
"This achieves several goals," says Clare Carson, director of academic resources, who coordinates the program. "First, of course, it introduces new students to this process, so typical of Whitman, of grappling with a text, placing it in a broader context, rooting out meaning, and discussing and defending your opinions in front of your peers."
A second goal, Carson notes, is achieved by having experienced classmates, the RAs and SAs who will play a vital role in these first-year students' academic and social success, lead the discussions. "This emphasizes," says Carson, "that the entire College forms an integrated learning community, in which students learn not only from their professors, but also from each other."
As Cronin says, "Students will find many role models here at Whitman. Many will be faculty and staff members, but some will be fellow students, too."
Tim Baldwin and Audrey Mollerup were among students who had questions for author Tim O’Brien following his talk in Maxey Auditorium.
Before opening weekend this year, Cronin and two other faculty members — history professor David Schmitz and English professor John Desmond — met at the President's House with the RAs and SAs assigned to first-year halls. Cronin, Schmitz, and Desmond helped the student advisers formulate questions
that would effectively shape the discussions they would lead. Then, on the Saturday afternoon of opening weekend, first-year students gathered in their residence hall sections to discuss The Things They Carried.
As Cronin has noted, "We want our students to consider learning as a verb and not a noun. Not something passed out and fed back to professors on exams — but rather an active process of searching, exploring, questioning, seeking, and stretching." The discussions about the summer book are the beginning of this process.
The reading and the discussions are always intense and lively, but this year's book had a special resonance, not only because of O'Brien's intense
treatment of his subject matter — the combat soldier's experience of the Vietnam war — but also because O'Brien visited campus late in October.
In seminar settings and in a standing-room-only discussion in Maxey Hall, O'Brien described the process he went through in turning his own Vietnam experiences into the books of fiction that have earned him wide acclaim.
Several students wondered how "true" these supposed works of fiction were. "Not much is true, in the literal sense," he said. And then, provoking much thought and discussion, he added, "but it's all true in a real sense."