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Georgia College implements new first-year reading program, giving students more choices

For some, the college summer-reading assignment is a distant memory. For others, it’s just been assigned – and maybe that book will get read.

But odds are – it won’t.

Acknowledging this reluctance for reading the first-year book – a trend that’s grown more pervasive in the computer age – Georgia College will now require approximately 1480 first-year students to browse 28 essay topics. They’ll choose one that interests them and read the six- to 15-page essay prior to the first week of classes, when they’ll discuss the topic in small faculty-led seminars and do reflective writing.

This moves the common experience of one book to a common experience of reading, called GCREADS.

“What we have found – and what other First-Year Experience professionals shared at the most recent national meeting – is more and more students were not reading the entire book. Most were reading the first 30 pages or so, and sometimes they weren’t reading it at all,” said Dr. Carolyn Denard, associate provost for student success and director of the Center for Student Success.

“We think the lack of full engagement in the book came from busy summer schedules but also because students weren’t interested in a book that was chosen for them,” she said. “So, we’re trying to give students more freedom in the choice of what they read. We’re focusing more on the practice of reading, not the topic.”

Denard co-chairs the “First-year Book Committee” with Dr. Andy Lewter, dean of students. This committee meets each year to choose Georgia College’s ‘common reader.’ This spring, the committee brainstormed ideas and researched practices at other universities. They came across a new program at Boise State University in Idaho, where first-year students are given 14 essays to choose from. The idea is – if students are interested in the topic, they will read it.

But Denard’s committee went a step further. They wanted to make GCREADS a transformative experience by giving first-year students an earlier encounter with faculty. In the past, students read one book and attended book discussions with faculty in groups of 40. Now, first-year students will get their first taste of a college ‘micro-seminar’ – an interactive discussion in small groups that enable close-interaction with one professor who shares their interest in the topic.

“In addition to reading about current issues,” Denard said, “we wanted students to get a sense of what it means to participate in a college seminar – one that involves close reading, civil discussion and a reflective, written response.”

Dr. Carolyn Denard gives information about GCREADS to a first-year student at orientation.

GCREADS offers first-year students a choice of 28 essays with themes like justice, language, Southern culture, American history, the artist’s responsibility, sustainability, health and wellness, technology and leadership.

Students select from interesting, fun topics like “With Drawl” by Laura Reyla that addresses stereotypes of Southern accents. Or they can delve into more-serious reflections like “Stealing a Bag of Potato Chips and Other Acts of Resistance” by Victor Rios that examines choices some young men make in order to gain respect. Other titles include “Is Google Making us Stupid” by Nicholas Carr, “People Like Us” by David Brooks, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: the Creativity of Black Women in the South” by Alice Walker and “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell.

“These are not meant to be hard-hitting, scholarly essays that they’d have to do research on to understand,” Denard said. “These well-written essays are an easier introduction to college reading for first year students. They also reflect the broad interests of a liberal arts education.”

At orientations this summer, first-year students are introduced to the website, where they can find summaries and essay links. In early August, they’ll carefully read one essay that interests them, review discussion questions and sign up for a faculty-led seminar. To keep micro seminars small, only 25 students can sign up for each session. With 60 faculty to lead seminars, committee members hope to offer two seminars per topic.

In addition to getting an interesting topic with GCREADS, students will immediately experience the college classroom setting, which is very different from high school, Lewter said. This will give students a head start, making the transition into college smoother.

“We hope students will be inspired intellectually by the discussion that they will have with their peers,” Denard said. “We also hope they’ll be able, at the end, to identify a faculty member who shares the same interest.”

“GCREADS is a reading experience that will be different, innovative and interesting for our students – one that reflects the diverse interests of our students and encourages a lifetime of reading,” she said.

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