How a Summer Reading Program Helps Incoming Students find Common Ground as Soon as They Step Foot on Campus.


Honest. Thought-provoking. Real.
These are just a few of the words used by first-year students to describe their summer reading. Except it wasn't just summer reading, even though it may have been done on a beach; it was their first college assignment.

The assignment for the incoming Clarkson Class of 2012 was to read a new novel by once-upon-a-time engineer Stewart O'Nan, who threw in the techie towel after a short stint at Grumman Aerospace for a life as a well-known American novelist. The novel was Last Night at the Lobster, a story far from the conventional readings that are typically assigned. Instead, O’Nan’s novel focuses on a single day in the lives of the ordinary and the overlooked in the workaday world of America.

The summer reading program was launched three years ago by Dick Pratt, former dean of arts & sciences, and several faculty members who hoped to foster communication among new students, which would in turn help the newcomers develop a sense of community. It would also, the creators hoped, give these students a meaningful introduction to what it means to be part of a university community.

"The program gives the students a common topic to discuss, no matter what they plan on studying at Clarkson,” says Associate Professor of Humanities Owen Brady. “We want to show them that a university community is bound together by this intellectual curiosity and constant conversation."

Based on the students’ reactions, it seems to have worked.

"The summer reading program gave each student a simple common topic to spark conversation with a classmate,” says first-year student Nicholas Clemens, a chemical engineering major from Lowville, N.Y. “The first 'class' we had here at Clarkson was one that went over the summer reading, and everyone was ready and open to talk about the book."

Clemens and his fellow students, along with their families, were invited to participate in a book discussion during orientation week. Led by professors and staff across the University, the incoming class was broken up into groups, where students were able to share with fellow classmates their own reactions and thoughts about the book.

Each group, consisting of 15 to 25 students, was broken down into even smaller groups of four or five who chatted about the book, its themes, structure and characters. The students then reported their findings to the larger group. The small group format was particularly conducive to discussion so ideas flowed easily.

"The discussion in small groups helped me look at the book from different perspectives,” says Stuart Benner-Campbell ’12, a mechanical engineering major from Deansboro, N.Y. “We saw lives that may not be the same as ours, but the novel enabled us to look at the similarities among all lives. It was a great way to get the mind working before college officially started.”

Meanwhile, Owen Brady was charged with leading the family discussion, held at the same time as the student groups. Expecting no more than 10 parents, Brady was pleasantly surprised when he arrived at Cheel and was greeted by over 100 parents who had read the book and were ready to participate in the conversation.

"The parents really surprised me,” he says. “I could tell that some of them really got into discussions with their children about this book, which is what we aimed for."

So, how did program coordinators catch Lobster in their net? Brady says that selecting a book is all about the big picture. "This book focuses on the idea of community and the human relations that bind it together, which is particularly relevant for students beginning a new life together at a university. These are things we want them to think about.”