Editorial: Improving the Common Reading Program

Every year, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life offers the Common Reading Program as a way to engage first-year and transfer students in a shared intellectual experience. The program, which is common at many other universities as well, has the potential to serve as an important opportunity to start meaningful discussions among those who are new to this campus. The books selected tend to touch upon timely political and social issues that are relevant to college students. However, its implementation could be improved to better engage incoming students through the creation of a service project or long-term opportunities for community action.

Last fall, all incoming new students were mailed a copy of “Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America” (2016) by Roberto Gonzales. Gonzales’ book tells the personal stories of undocumented students, which are relevant to all members of the Tufts community now that our school accepts undocumented students and is grappling with how best to support them. Though many first-years may have been passionate about the issue, countless students closed the book after reading a couple of chapters of the dense ethnography. Based on discussions that took place on the Class of 2020 Facebook page, students seem to connect more over the fact that they did not finish the book than over the book’s content. Although the topic was timely, “Lives in Limbo” simply did not foster community or intellectual engagement.

That is not to say there is no merit to reading a well-researched sociological work such as “Lives in Limbo.” Not only does it introduce incoming students to the level of higher education they can expect to receive at Tufts, but it broadens their social and global perspectives. But because the Common Reading Book is not required reading, the program doesn’t engage people on a broad scale.

Tufts attempted to expand the Common Reading Program by offering a few campus events last fall, screening the film “Papers: Stories of Undocumented Youth” (2009) and hosting a lecture and roundtable discussion with the author. There was even an essay contest for incoming undergraduate students surrounding topics covered in the book, offering students the chance to win a Tufts Bookstore gift card. Additionally, a couple dozen students registered for a fall course about undocumented immigrants, which incorporated “Lives in Limbo.” Nonetheless, these programs didn’t seem to reach as many students as might be interested in the topics discussed in the book.

Perhaps the Common Reading Program could be improved through a call to action, allowing students to volunteer or work on a service or advocacy project related to that year’s book selection. Perhaps Tisch College could host a series of events throughout the year about the specific issues addressed in the book or support students in a year-long campaign rather than primarily hosting events during orientation. This would provide a more hands-on, in-depth way for students to get involved with Tisch College’s focus on civic life, especially for those who would rather do something about the topic in question rather than simply discuss it.

The Class of 2021 will soon be introduced to Tufts’ intellectual community when students receive their own copy of the upcoming Common Reading Book, which has not yet been announced. Let’s hope that Tufts recognizes the limitations of the program as it stands and takes this opportunity to engage more people.