Dr. Hill and students

The Novel Experience featured on national website

December 7, 2005

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Wofford College’s innovative The Novel Experience first-year reading program is featured on E-Source for College Transitions, the Web site of the National Resource Center: The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition (http://fye.sc.edu/esource/).

Below is the article, written by Laura H. Corbin, associate director of communications at Wofford, at the request of the National Resource Center.

The Novel Experience:
An Uncommon Summer Reading Program

Dining in a purportedly haunted former bank vault in what is now a downtown Spartanburg (South Carolina) restaurant is a novel experience and became a part of the town-and-gown component of the inaugural session of Wofford College’s The Novel Experience, an innovative reading program for first-year students.

Begun in 2002, The Novel Experience encompasses shared experiences among first-year students—reading the same novel over the summer, enjoying dinner and discussion of the book with their humanities section classmates and professor in local restaurants, writing essays on a question arising from the novel, and hearing from the author in person.

“The Novel Experience introduces Wofford freshmen to the world of contemporary fiction,” says John Lane, associate professor of English and creative writing. “They read a provocative novel, write about it, then soon after, hear the writer read from their work and respond to their questions.”

“It’s the perfect space for making the importance of fiction clear,” Lane continues. “A dozen or so of our students work to craft novels in one of our creative writing classes, so what better way could there be to honor the art of fiction than this shared reading experience?”

Many colleges have first-year student reading programs, but few combine it with the town-and-gown element or ask students to write an essay. Students also have an opportunity to meet and hear the novel’s author. He or she is invited to campus for a special convocation for the entire student body and gives a public reading later in the evening. “Readings are the traditional way an author presents his work, and the author of The Novel Experience book reads from the assigned book as well as other works, giving us a chance to hear a range of his or her work,” Lane says.

The best student-written essays on the novel question from each humanities section are published in a high-end, glossy booklet and distributed at the convocation. The author is given a copy of the booklet earlier, and often makes use of the essays in the convocation lecture. The writers of the winning essays meet the author and have lunch with him or her after the convocation.

The late Dr. John C. Cobb (Wofford College Class of 1976), who initiated the program when he was director of the humanities program, once said, “It’s an opportunity to give the students a common intellectual experience, introduce them to the community at large by taking them out to restaurants, bring an internationally known and tremendously respected writer to campus, and give the first-year class an experience that is both intellectually sophisticated and memorable.” Cobb embedded The Novel Experience in an improved program of first-year humanities seminars that Wofford pioneered in the 1970s. “The idea is to teach writing and discuss skills around topics that help students confront moral values and issues,” he said.

Students at first question whether they have time to read a novel over the summer before they start their college careers. “I was like, ‘Are you serious?’” says now sophomore Tanya George, 20, an English major, when she found that in the midst of getting her housing assignment and registering for classes, she would be required to read Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders.

Soon, though, George discovered the value of the experience. Because she was unable to attend the college’s orientation programs, the novel became a good conversation-starter with her classmates. “People would come up and ask, ‘Did you like the book?’ or if I had read the book,” she says.

Dr. Deno Trakas, English professor and coordinator of The Novel Experience, says that is one of the purposes of the program—getting students talking to each other and their professors. “One of our main reasons for The Novel Experience is to help create a campus community during the students’ first year. Once they get to campus, they talk about it in their dorm rooms with roommates or in the cafeteria. We just want to encourage conversation.”

To that end and to help students become familiar with the surrounding community, the town-and-gown aspect of The Novel Experience takes each humanities section to a different local restaurant for dinner and a discussion of the novel. The restaurants range from upscale, sit-down dining venues to local hole-in-the-wall burger joints — each providing a different flavor, literally and figuratively.

Which restaurant a group visits is determined by the luck of the draw. One evening shortly after the fall semester begins, all first-year students come together with their humanities professors. A representative of each section is selected to either draw a lot with the name of the restaurant on it or spin a wheel to determine the restaurant. The gathering itself is a bonding experience. There is a lot of fun, frivolity, and nervous anticipation as students rejoice or grimace, depending on the selection and their personal taste. About two dozen restaurants are used for the program to accommodate all students and their sections. George notes, “No matter how different everyone is here, the one thing we all share is the first-year student reading experience. It felt good to be part of something.”

Authors who have participated in Wofford College’s The Novel Experience are: Ha Jin (Waiting), 2005; Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game), 2004; Geraldine Brooks (Year of Wonders), 2003; and Charles Johnson (Middle Passage), 2002.

Lane says the 2006 Novel Experience book and author have not been selected, but that it will be a novel about war because the program is linked to a cluster of courses about war.