Three years ago the Honors College began a summer reading program, initiating the now annual tradition with The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Schlink was coming to campus to deliver the Dolowitz Lecture on Human Rights. He was willing to speak to groups of students, so incoming freshmen in the Honors College were encouraged to read the book and attend the discussion groups during the first few weeks of school. The reading program is still going strong. This year students are tackling Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
When asked what she hoped students would gain from participating, Sylvia Torti, dean of the Honors College, indicated that it was primarily an opportunity for new and incoming students to participate in building a community. “We hope that over the summer incoming students start to feel that they are part of the Honors and University community by reading a book that they know is being read by 500+ other students,” she said. Torti went on to explain that the book is also used as common ground to help introduce students to faculty, to one another, and it helps in exploring the art of dialogue.
This year’s selection has particular meaning for Torti. “I was first exposed to [Their Eyes Were Watching God] in college as part of a Women in Literature course,” she said. “I absolutely loved it because of the protagonist’s journey of self discovery and self definition that was set in a time and culture that was totally new to me.”
Books selected for the Honors College are often chosen based on their capacity to allowing students opportunities for exploration. A committee of Honors faculty and staff selects the reading for the summer, searching for material with themes that are both timeless and current. Previous books have touched on themes such as the interplay of science and ethics, gender, war, cultural and religious conflicts and moral dilemmas; “basically, a book that will inspire great conversations,” Torti said.
Torti looks forward to hearing discussions centered on Hurston’s novel, especially given the complicated historical context of the piece. “There is so much to discuss about the treatment of race, gender and authorship in literature, not to mention the very important moment of Black Lives Matter and the critical conversations about how we can — and must — become a thriving country of diverse cultures, one which acknowledges and atones mistakes of the past while respecting and promoting our collective future potential,” she said.
The biggest payoff for participating in the reading does come from attending the discussion groups. This year, some discussions will be lead by new faculty in the History, Communication and English departments. These discussion groups are not limited to Honors students either—both of the two scheduled events will be open to all students on campus. The first will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 13 in the Marriott Honors Community room 1206B from 6 to 7 p.m., and the second on Thursday, Sept. 15 from 6 to 7 p.m. in room 1205. Refreshments will be served.