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Ithaca College introduces a reading program to engage the entire campus as a community of learners.

Peggy Williams
Photo by Tom A. Mike

This summer the College is launching an exciting program that will not only create a shared academic experience for incoming students --- as called for in our Institutional Plan --- but also engage the entire campus. The first-year student summer reading initiative sends a powerful message: that an Ithaca College education encompasses not only a high degree of professional training, but also the liberal arts values of intellectual inquiry and critical thinking.

The choice of the inaugural reading, James McBride's The Color of Water, underscores our commitment to another priority of the Institutional Plan, which is to "create a campus environment that accepts, reflects, and celebrates diversity." The Color of Water is McBride's memoir of growing up in New York City, the son of a Polish Jewish mother and an African American father. His work is a moving testament to the ethnic complexity of American society and should provide a valuable jumping-off point for discussions about cultural differences and the nature of race in the United States.

The Color of Water won the 1997 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for literary excellence, was an American Literary Association "notable book of the year," and spent more than two years on the New York Times best-seller list. In 2002 it was chosen by New York Women's Agenda as the first selection of the "New York City Reads Together" project. McBride, a former staff writer for the Boston Globe and Washington Post, is also an accomplished musician. A professional saxophonist and composer, he has received the American Music Theater Festival's Stephen Sondheim Award and his songs have been recorded by Anita Baker and Grover Washington Jr., among others.

At orientation in August, each first-year student will receive a copy of The Color of Water. We are asking students to engage in a thoughtful critique of this book and not simply to digest it. Every book has a perspective, and we want students to learn how to identify the author's point of view, understand it, analyze its strengths and weaknesses, and formulate alternative points of view. To that end we will include with the book four questions intended to stimulate the students' reflection on the narrative. The questions deal with such topics as how the story broadens or changes the reader's understanding of what it means to be Jewish or black and what the story has to say about what is gained and what is lost when holding on to the past and when forgetting, ignoring, or running away from it.

The Color of Water tells an interesting story that we believe will create some thought-provoking dialogue. On August 26, the day after Convocation, first-year students will participate in small-group discussions on their reading, led by faculty facilitators from different disciplines as well as other members of the College community. We hope the readers will share their own thoughts on what they gained from reading the book.

We also hope that the first-year students and volunteer facilitators will not be alone in their conversations. We are making copies available to all faculty and staff members who wish to take part in this endeavor, so that the initiative can become a shared experience across campus.

James McBride himself will make a special appearance on campus the week after classes start. He will give a public presentation --- which will include a performance by his 12-piece jazz band of works from his new CD, The Process: Volume One --- on Tuesday, September 2, at 7:00 p.m. in the Emerson Suites. You are welcome to join us if you are in the neighborhood; you might want to read the book beforehand.

My thanks to assistant provost and dean of interdisciplinary studies Tanya Saunders, who headed the organizing committee, as well as the many volunteer participants who recognize the value of this project. We are excited about the first-year student summer reading initiative and look forward to this program's becoming another fine tradition at Ithaca College --- part of an ongoing process in which we seek to foster intellect, creativity, and character

[signed] Peggy R. Williams

   

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A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 30 July, 2003