RIP, First Year Reading Program

| Professor of Computer Science and Engineering

I report, with a modicum of personal sorrow and with eyebrows raised to DEFCON 4, the untimely passing of Washington University’s First Year Reading Program (FYRP). Once celebrated as a jewel in the crown of first-year experiences, a choice topping on the pizza of welcome week, and a marshmallow on the sundae of matriculation, its death, while falling short of a Shakespearean level of tragedy, is nonetheless somewhat suspicious. The exact time of death is difficult to determine, but it passed just short of its 20th birthday. Administrators reported that it was suffering from an undiagnosed case of terminal apathy for several years prior to its demise. My perspective differs somewhat from theirs.

I met FYRP soon after joining the faculty. I had volunteered to be a faculty associate, and with the assignment came the request to participate in the FYRP. I make no secret of my love of books, reading, and literature. In this space, should I be asked to continue, I will tell stories of my AP English teacher and our life-long friendship. Each year FYRP offered an opportunity for a discussion and a common experience for the first-year students. I don’t believe traditions should continue without end, and perhaps it was time for the sun to set on the FYRP. As a mechanism, its time may be over, but I claim that the goals of the program are still worthy and valid. The FYRP drew from faculty and staff all over campus, and our volunteerism was evidence of our uncompelled eagerness to meet the new first-year students, to begin to hear their stories, and to share with them our love of the written word and the topic chosen for the year.   

I found scant evidence of similar programs at other universities, but there is one at Northern Illinois University that has similar goals and desired outcomes. How did the FYRP program start at Washington University? To answer that question, I corresponded with Jill Stratton, formerly Assistant Dean of Residential Life and Learning at Washington University and now Assistant Provost for Experiential Learning at Vanderbilt University. She writes, “The program began in 2003 as part of […] the University’s Sesquicentennial. Provost Ed Macias […] often said that we tell first-year students what not to do during orientation and that the reading program was a terrific opportunity to tell them what to do — that is, to think critically, debate ideas, and connect with a faculty member before classes started. The reading program was also one of the very few, if only, common academic experiences that all students shared.” Many thanks to Jill for sharing this with me. The FYRP had noble beginnings and laudable goals.

In closing, I wonder what new programs might spring from the ashes of the FYRP to enable students and faculty to share viewpoints, stories, and conversations? I would love to participate in some kind of book/media club that is open to anybody on campus. Students could propose books, podcasts, movies of interest and we could meet to talk about them, hear each other’s stories, and share our passion for topics of mutual interest. Meanwhile, rest in peace, FYRP; you had a good run.

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