Williams Reads to expand with First Days program

Beginning in the 2012-13 academic year, the College will expand the Williams Reads initiative from a Winter Study program to a year-long community initiative. The College will send e-book copies of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, next year’s Williams Reads novel, to students prior to the start of the fall semester and will host discussions within the first-year entry during First Days in the fall. A limited amount of hard copies of the novel will be available on campus for those who are interested.

“The ongoing question is, what else can you do? I think it’s just a question of how to give that program as much vibrancy and opportunity to build community as it can possibly have,” Dean Bolton said of the program’s expansion.

According to Rob White, deputy director of communications for Alumni Relations and Development and member of the Williams Reads Committee, the committee made the decision to extend the program beyond Winter Study because a considerable number of students are not on campus during that time and year-long programming will reach more members of the campus community.

White said that programming for the year has not been fully developed but will likely include community forums, panel discussions, films, lectures and lectures from either faculty or guest speakers. All will address issues relevant to the content of Nickel and Dimed, which chronicles the author’s year-long investigation of minimum-wage employment and its implications within the U.S. economy.

The Williams Reads Committee, which falls under the purview of the Committee on Diversity and Community (CDC), is a student-faculty committee. The group solicits book titles from the community through Daily Messages and other public forums before voting on which book will be used for the program each year.

The committee hopes that the book will stimulate discussion on socioeconomic diversity. White said that community events specific to the book may include, for example, a brown bag lunch with a faculty member who is a part of the sociology or economics department or even a conversation with a community member who has firsthand experience in a minimum-wage job. White emphasized that discussion is imperative and would be incorporated into any Williams Reads event hosted by the College.

Promoting informal academic discussion is also what the committee hopes to achieve through the First Days programming. “The idea of putting a book in everybody’s hands, which now can be done electronically, has made it possible to imagine that first-year students can get this book and get it relatively easily,” said Dave Johnson ’71, associate dean and dean of first-year students. “Then there could be some expectation that they could read it over the summer or read it as soon as they get here.”

According to Johnson, another key goal of the entry discussion during First Days is building “a faculty-staff-administrator-entry partnership,” he said, adding that the CDC plans to ask each JA during spring training to identify a faculty or staff member of his choice to join the entry discussion on Nickel and Dimed this fall.

Another aim that the CDC hopes to accomplish is increased faculty involvement in First Days and consequently more comfortable relationships between faculty and first-year students.

“Our hope is that this is an area that can connect entries with faculty or staff and that the book is a good way to do that,” Johnson said. “We need to get [faculty and staff members] into the entries quicker … The entries become very insular and secluded from the adult world, and we want to connect.

“The focus on that is going to be to bring that book to the entry for some kind of dialogue,” Johnson continued, adding that the gist of the conversation will be informal and relaxed and will likely include food.

“We’ve been looking for some way to involve the first-year class in the message that academics are the reason that they’re coming to Williams,” Johnson said, but explained that the Williams Reads program – and the summer reading – will be promoted not as a  mandatory assignment but as highly encouraged.

“This isn’t homework, and if it feels like homework for the incoming [first-years], that will be totally contrary to what we want to achieve,” White said of encouraging students to read the book over the summer.

“While we hope it’s not heavy lifting, we do hope that it allows everybody at Williams to connect a little more around a common theme, which is ultimately about our shared humanity,” White said.

“What we’re hoping is that a number of faculty members will choose to incorporate Nickel and Dimed into their coursework this year,” he continued. “This is the first time we’ve done a non-fiction book [for Williams Reads], and this is the first time we’ve explored socioeconomic diversity as opposed to sexual identity or race or culture. Inevitably we’ll want to address that issue more than once. I could imagine finding another equally compelling book that deals with these issues.”

Johnson agreed with White’s thoughts. “I think we’re anticipating that conversations could be uncomfortable, but that’s part of the community’s responsibility to deal with that,” he said.

“As long as we’re facilitating it properly, it will lead to growth and better understanding. We just want everybody to talk about the book and use it as a way to talk about life.”

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