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CCU Atheneum: Copies of  “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in the Chanticleer Store.
Copies of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in the Chanticleer Store.

Big changes for the Big Read?

by Brian Druckenmiller
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Incoming freshmen find out quickly that they aren’t in high school any longer. While hard work pays dividends at any level of education, the transition from 12th grade to college can be a challenge. Thanks to the First Year Experience (FYE) courses required of all incoming freshmen, students can ease into the transition, developing the skills required for a successful college experience. A significant part of the FYE program is the Big Read, and this year some people are curious about the program’s status.

One goal of the Big Read program is to unite the entire freshman class in a shared learning experience. This shared experience cultivates academic growth, developing critical thinking, reading comprehension, constructive group collaboration and discussion skills.

“A lot of reading and a lot of responding is what goes on in college,” said Scott Pleasant, coordinator of the Writing Center and third-year director of the Big Read committee. “It’s a primary function for success at this level.”

For this year’s Big Read, the committee chose “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. The book tells the story of how one person’s death gave life to so many, as Lacks’ cancer cells (known as HeLa Cells) provided a breakthrough in research; as the cells can divide an unlimited amount of times, they have been used for tests in not only cancer research, but for polio, AIDS and many other diseases.

“There isn’t a single person in the world…who hasn’t benefitted, in some way, from these cells,” said Skloot in an online video for her book.

The book should look familiar to CCU faculty and staff. That’s because it was also last year’s Big Read. This is the first year in the program’s history that a book has been repeated, and that has raised many eyebrows.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t get a lot of great nominations this year,” said Pleasant. “So [the committee] had to decide what was better: force a not-so-good book on freshmen, or repeat a previous success. We decided to repeat; it’s still new to the students reading it.”

By “not-so-good,” Pleasant did not mean that all the books nominated were critical failures or brainless reads (aside from a “Spiderman” comic book that was apparently nominated). He explained that the books didn’t meet the committee’s rigorous criteria. The selection process can be daunting, as committee members read assigned books and rate each of them in eight different categories: readability; relation with students’ lives; universality; timeliness; whether or not the book is interdisciplinary; has historical and cultural merit; diversity; and length. While some great books were nominated, the committee felt the new choices fell short in one or more of the categories.

“Not only were there a limited number of nominations,” said Pleasant, “but those that were nominated did not provide a broad appeal; we didn’t think students would actually read any of them. [‘Immortal Life…’] was very successful. It is interdisciplinary; there is something for all four colleges: quality writing, business and cultural ethics, and incredible science. Not everyone liked it, but everyone was talking about it, and that is what the Big Read is all about.”

It’s also important to note that “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was nominated again, proving that last year’s choice was successful.

The Big Read is making significant changes. Instead of having one activity focused around the Big Read (typically a faculty panel discussion) as in past years, this year features several events scheduled throughout September and October, including a viewing of the documentary “Sick Around the World,” an art exhibit at the Rebecca Randall Bryan Art Gallery, a debate and a couple of guest speakers. These opportunities for interaction, according to Pleasant, allow students to gain new perspectives on the issues the book presents. Faculty members will be pleased to learn that the 2013 Big Read selection, and all future Big Read books, will be announced in October, giving them approximately 10 months to read and plan accordingly.

“We like where the Big Read is now, and where it is going to be with these changes,” said Pleasant. “We want to maintain this community of discussion, continue pushing more activities, and make it more of a program than just a ‘summer read.’ ”

Although participation in the nomination process was disappointing for 2012, the Big Read is as strong as ever. For 2013, 42 books have been nominated. Although 12 were immediately eliminated, 30 books remain, and members of the committee are spending their summer reading some great books. In October, CCU will know what’s in store for the next wave of fall freshmen.

“We appreciate the support upper administration has for the program,” said Pleasant. “It’s not the cheapest program to run; I’m glad CCU sees the value the Big Read program offers its students.”


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