Magazine On-line [spring 2008]
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Around the Campus

Community Book Project Fosters Intellectual Discourse

Taylor Johnson, a first-year student from Louisville, had been on the Transylvania campus only a few days last September when he found himself engaged in a lively discussion with a small group of his new classmates over a deadly serious topic—capital punishment.

Community book project group discussion
First-year students discuss the Scott Turow book Ultimate Punishment in a group led by Spanish Professor Martha Ojeda.

“The scariest part of it was that you had to dive in and voice your opinion among a group where none of us really knew each other that well yet,” Johnson said. “It turned out to be a freeing experience.”

The rigorous intellectual exercise Johnson’s group experienced was part of an academic immersion program for new students called First Engagements: A Community Book Project at Transylvania University that took place during the first week of classes. All participants read Scott Turow’s best-selling book Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty as their basic text. Turow served on Illinois’ Ryan Commission, which probed capital punishment issues in the state.

As Johnson and his classmates were going through the time-honored first week, new college student experiences of adjusting to roommates, finding their way to that first class, and checking out dining hall food, they were also being asked to consider what being a student at Transylvania really means.

The First Engagements program was designed by the faculty and staff to give them a stimulating introduction to the high standards of liberal education practiced at Transylvania through active participation in an intellectual community.

The unmistakable message: Your Transylvania education starts right here, right now.

“We want to have students coming to Transylvania with the idea that their education is at the forefront, that they should have high expectations of them selves as adult learners,” said William Pollard, vice president and dean of the college. “We want them to see themselves as inquisitive people who want to read and discuss and debate.”

From all accounts, including participating faculty and staff members, first-year students, and upper level student facilitators, First Engagements was a very successful project.

First-year student Daniel Rison from Mount Sterling, Ky., felt his discussion group was profitable both intellectually and socially.

“The discussion groups opened our eyes right away to what liberal education is all about,” Rison said. “It’s about fostering dialogue and having understanding. It also allowed me to find common interests with some students, because the discussion was so heated at times and so controversial, we would really air our laundry on the thoughts. People’s interests and passions come out in this kind of discussion.”

First-year student Crystal Walker from Louisville thought Turow did an excellent job of making his analysis feel very real and immediate.

“He’s conflicted about the issue, and you feel you’re right in there with him as he presents his cases and arguments, but you don’t know where he stands until his closing sentence,” Walker said. “You always want to know—what was he thinking, what was his decision? When it finally comes, it was like a cathartic release.”

Music professor Greg Partain, who moderated a group, originally suggested the book. “It’s accessible yet sophisticated, deep, and thought-provoking,” he said. “The topic is focused, but also multi-faceted—a wonderful springboard for discussions along many lines.”

History professor Ken Slepyan agreed that the book was a good fit for the program.

Scott Turow with student
First-year student Kacey Price met award-winning author Scott Turow at a reception following his convocation address in Haggin Auditorium in October on his book Ultimate Punishment.

“We wanted students to see what Turow’s thought processes were as he wrestled with his analysis of the death penalty,” said Slepyan, who also facilitated a group. “His ultimate decision was based on his own rational analysis. It modeled for students the kind of critical thinking we want them to do.”

Assistant dean of students Michael Covert helped coordinate the project and also summarized student evaluations. “We asked them if they found the topic, the book, and the discussions to be intellectually appropriate and stimulating, and the response was overwhelmingly positive,” he said.

Education professor Amy Trail served on the project’s committee and noted that a basic premise of the program was to inculcate in students the idea that their education can take place anywhere on campus at any time.

“The committee asked the question of what we could do outside of the classroom to support the liberal arts ethos of the University, and this program was one answer,” Trail said. “The overall response and the enthusiasm everyone brought to the program made me feel it was definitely a fit for the spirit of the Transylvania community. Students were genuinely engaged.”

The book project committee is currently reviewing three books as candidates to be used next fall in the continuation of the program. They are Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

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