Williams Reads expands programming centered on ‘Nickel and Dimed’

Williams Reads, which formerly existed as a Winter Study program, is in the midst of its pilot expansion year this fall. The program has recently grown out of a Committee on Diversity and Community (CDC) subcommittee. Over 1100 free copies of this year’s chosen book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, have been given out to students and faculty members and more copies are available in the deans office, the Multicultural Center, Schow and Sawyer and the Office of Student Life.

First-years were strongly encouraged to read the book prior to their arrival on campus so that they would be able to participate in a First Days conversation on the material. In order to facilitate that process, the College sent each first-year a copy of Nickel and Dimed over the summer.

Once on campus, all first-years attended a panel discussion featuring President Falk and Professor of Biology Wendy Raymond, Ephraim Williams Professor of American History Charles Dew and Professor of Economics and Political Economy David Zimmerman. After the panel guests had spoken to the important messages regarding community and social criticism in the book, students split into entry-based groups for moderated discussions on the novel. Upperclassmen were provided with free copies of the book upon their arrival on campus this fall.

This particular book was a catalyst for intelligent discussion among first-years on today’s pressing issues, including welfare, healthcare, the complexities of the low-wage life and broadly, poverty in America. Associate Professor of History Leslie Brown, a Williams Reads committee member, said that this expansion helped “model [a] classroom experience” and “provide a common intellectual experience for all first-years.”

The Williams Reads committee believed the former model of Williams Reads was too limited in resources and time and as a result, did not draw significant participation. Additionally, similar reading programs have also been adopted at other peer institutions.

The committee predicted that content-driven discussion that stimulates critical thinking and analysis and invites students to share personal experience would be a valuable addition to orientation at the College.

“I think one of the really interesting things that we’re still trying to fully understand is how to use this new arc for Williams Reads that expands further than three weeks and Winter Study … and how that sort of uses it as a jumping-off point for sort of intellectual and social discourse for first-year students and then moves throughout the fall and into January and how that’s working,” Dean Bolton, Williams Reads committee member, said.

“The impression I had from students and staff and faculty was that those initial discussions during First Days worked really well and people really liked them, so I think the idea that it’s not a three week-long thing and it’s a longer thing, I think that has some appeal, so we want to kind of build on that,” Bolton concluded.

The success thus far of this year’s Williams Reads programming has encouraged the Williams Reads committee. The cycle of the committee is such that the group is re-staffed each fall to allow the incoming committee sufficient time to both select a new book and plan related programming for early in the fall. As part of the two-year pilot program for this version of Williams Reads, the 2012-13 committee will convene for the first time this week to plan the remainder of this year’s events and to begin preparing for next year, according to Bolton.

The Williams Reads committee is focused now on planning programming for the month of January in particular, especially because the aim is to tie Williams Reads to Claiming Williams, Bolton explained.

“There definitely will be a lot of January programming, and the hope is that it will arc and that there will be a closing Williams Reads thing in Claiming Williams … because many of the Williams Reads original themes are actually quite connected to the original Claiming Williams themes, being around community and diversity essentially,” Bolton said. “I think there will probably be some Claiming Williams-Williams Reads shared sponsored events in the intervening time.”

While little feedback has been received from upperclassmen due to the first-year-centric nature of the events that have already taken place this semester, Bolton said that she has received extensive positive feedback not only from students, but also from faculty and staff involved in the program. The College community was particularly invested in the First Days discussion. “We had more staff and faculty volunteering to lead discussion groups – well over forty – than there were groups to lead,”Bolton said.

“I think this timing has been better, since people have a little more time earlier than later in the semester,” Bolton said in reference to how the shift in the timing of the Williams Reads program had been received.

Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass echoed Bolton’s sentiments. “There’s a process, there’s an arc that I think, from the previous two years when I was involved in the Winter Study version of it,” he said. “I think this engaged a lot more people, and a lot more deeply.”

Aside from planning further programming, this year’s Williams Reads committee is currently beginning the process of selecting next year’s book, a decision which is made in collaboration with the CDC. Books from previous years have included: Fun Home by Allison Bechdel; Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz; and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexi. Nickel and Dimed, while published in 2001, continues to be a relevant work in the ongoing issue of America’s working poor. This book easily lends itself to discourse on racism, sexism, bureaucracy and classism.

Nickel and Dimed also inevitably sparks debate without proposing any reforms or taking a clear stance. “We were spurred by the fact that although this was an election year, candidates were talking about the middle class, but not the working poor, who account for about 30 percent of American workers,” Brown said when asked about the book’s selection.

While the program originally scheduled a lecture by the author on campus for last night, Ehrenreich fell ill at the last minute and was forced to cancel her trip to the College.

The Williams Reads committee is hoping to reschedule her appearance for later in the semester and will also be holding a film screening in November.