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First things first

Sept. 21, 2004

By Susan Green

Starting college can be overwhelming. Moving into residence halls, meeting roommates, registering for classes, finding your way around campus and checking out the social scene can be exciting, fun and scary for many first-year students.

Research has shown that in order for students to thrive, they need to fit in socially as well as academically. Ohio University's orientation process and first-year experience programs are designed to help students address issues important to their academic success and to introduce them to the rich campus life they are about to embrace.

This is the second story in a series about the first-year experience.

The Common Reading Project

If you've never been part of a reading group, you don't know what you're missing. If you have, you know how invigorating that experience can be.

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This year, more than 3,600 first-year students participated in their first reading group, the Common Reading Project. The book: "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," by Barbara Ehrenreich.

"We developed the Common Reading Project because we wanted all first-year students to share a common experience," says Joe Burke, director of residence life. "And in particular, we wanted to make it an intellectual experience, an exchange of ideas."

Burke says he chose the book because it's relevant to the economic situation here in Appalachia and can be read on two different levels.

"What resonated with me was that you could read it on the level that it addresses the notion of poverty and the working poor in America. And on another level it's about fitting in."

First-year students are typically worried about how they'll be perceived and whether or not they're going to fit in.

The author is trying to fit into four different work situations and, Burke adds, "It isn't too far of a stretch to have a conversation with students about fitting in."

While the goal of the project is intellectual engagement, it also lets students know that learning takes place outside of the classroom, in any venue that encourages an exchange of ideas. And when students are more engaged in the intellectual life of the University, they have a more meaningful experience.

First-year students participating in a Common Reading Project discussion group.Johnnie Wilcox, assistant professor of English, who led one of the common reading discussions held Sept. 5, made sure to create a comfortable environment for students to express diverse opinions.

"It took a few minutes for them to open up," he says. "A few students were eager to participate, but the discussion didn't get going until I asked whether or not what the author did was a good thing. The conversation took a political turn and led to a discussion about exchanging civil liberties for security."

Social psychologists say that isn't unusual. A phenomena known as "diffusion of responsibility" is at work. It's what happens when members of a large group (more than 10) feel less responsible for contributing to the group. Nobody wants to be first. And they don't think it's weird to say nothing at all.

But once someone in the group has the courage to break the silence, a floodgate of discussion begins. The decision to participate becomes stronger as the personality of the group emerges and people begin to take more risks in expressing their opinions. They are engaging with each other and thinking critically.

Wilcox noticed this dynamic during his discussion session. "I saw different opinions coming together. Students were really engaging with each other. It's a good model for the classroom in general.

"One thing I wanted to do was to continue contact with my group of students," he adds, "to discuss other texts or to engage them in a classroom activity."

Johnnie Wilcox leads a discussion group.Wilcox also thinks the common reading is a really good way to tie student's social and intellectual lives together.

Jordan White, a first-year student from Bay Village, Ohio, who was part of Wilcox's common reading discussion group, says he was hesitant to participate at first. But once people opened up and started sharing their thoughts, he jumped in. He liked the social and intellectual atmosphere of the discussion.

"It was a good way to meet people. And even though it was brief, it did give you a look at what college would be like. It certainly wasn't like high school," he says.

Fellow first-year student Elyse Raley, from Athens, Ohio, agrees, "It didn't exactly prepare me for what was ahead when classes started, but it certainly wasn't like high school. Our common reading discussion group was a bit different in that our discussion leader brought in a speaker who talked first-hand about the experiences Ehrenreich describes in the book."

Students like discussing ideas - it leads them in directions they never considered. "The fact that we want to engage students in the intellectual life of the university right from the start, sends a powerful message to them," Burke says. "And this book in particular lends itself to people having strong opinions one way or the other about the issues raised by the author. Since this is a presidential election year, they might be a bit more willing to express their views."

Democratic dialogue, respect for other's opinions and learning to disagree with each other creates vibrant pluralist communities and isn't that what education is all about?

Susan Green is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.

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