The Novel Experience
NIGHT TALK by Elizabeth Cox, has been selected as the novel all incoming members of the class of 2018 will read and discuss.
The previous books and authors in the series are:
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Waiting by Ha Jin
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Paco's Story by Larry Heineman
Rich in Love by Josephine Humphries
A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds
One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Old School by Tobias Wolff
One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni
Though many colleges and universities offer orientation reading programs for first-year students, the unique aspects of Wofford's Novel Experience have made it a national benchmark. Written by Wofford graduate and master's degree candidate Meg Beacham, the following description of the program first appeared in "E-source for College Transitions," published bi-monthly by the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina, July 2009. The National Resource Center has as its mission to support and advance efforts to improve student learning and transitions into higher education. The article is reprinted here by permission.
Wofford's Novel Experience: Taking a Common Reading Program to Dinner
Wofford College, located in Spartanburg, South Carolina, established its Novel Experience common reading program in 2002 with the goal of helping incoming students see that intellectual interactions can occur outside the classroom and realize the importance of discussing ideas with faculty and fellow students. Wofford faculty state, "Our goal is for them to share a common intellectual experience and to see right away that the emphasis of a liberal arts education is learning through reading, thinking, and discussing" (Baker, Farr, Norman, & Trakas, 2006, p. 1).
As part of the orientation process, first year students are notified what novel has been selected the summer before their first semester. Students are expected to write a short essay on the reading during the first week of their Humanities 101 class, which is a required course for all entering students. The essay topic is announced on the first day of class, and essays must be submitted by the end of first week.
Mid-week, prior to turning in their essays, students, faculty, and orientation peer leaders meet for the Novel Experience dinner. As Laufgraben (2006) notes, "bringing students together over lunch or dinner to discuss a book offers a casual setting for students to get to know each other while maintaining an academic focus" (p. 4). The night of the dinner, first-year students gather in the campus auditorium, and each Humanities 101 class, together with its instructor, is randomly assigned a restaurant destination. Wofford picks up the dinner tab for the approximately 500 student and faculty participants. Originally funded by the College, since 2007 the program has been financed by an anonymous benefactor.
Faculty members are provided a list of possible book discussion questions, though each professor decides how to individually structure the conversation over dinner. Some professors hand out note cards with questions about the novel and divide the class into smaller groups for discussion. Others have a more informal discussion around the dinner table during dessert.
To complete the Novel Experience, professors select three essays from their class that they deem to be most compelling, and a faculty committee selects the best eight from all the essays submitted. The eight essays are printed in a program distributed to students at the Novel Experience convocation held approximately two weeks after the dinner, which all first-year students are required to attend. The author of the common reading novel is invited to the convocation and responds to the eight essays during his or her lecture.
The Novel Experience Benefits and Outcomes
Students are asked to evaluate and provide feedback on all the different activities they experience during their official orientation, and the Novel Experience is a consistent highlight. Every year since its inception, more than half of students rank the dinner as one of the top three favorite orientation events. Examples of positive student feedback include comments such as,
I was scared to death of what my college classes were going to be like, but getting to go out to dinner with my professor and classmates made everything not seem so intimidating.
I realized my professor was actually a pretty cool guy. It was neat to see him outside of the classroom environment. We did talk about the novel and school stuff at dinner, but more importantly, we ended up just getting to know more about him, and him about us.
The benefits of the Novel Experience are many. The dinner at a local Spartanburg restaurant introduces students to the Spartanburg community and allows students to interact with their professors in a more relaxed setting outside the classroom. This early informal interaction with a faculty member is also intended to encourage students to develop relationships with faculty throughout their undergraduate careers. The program format serves as an incentive for students to read the book by engaging them in multiple venues interacting with their peers and professors (i.e., essay competition, dinner, and convocation) and linking their participation directly to the success of the experience. Academic rigor is promoted through dinner by involving students in intellectual discussions and the essay competition by recognizing the academic accomplishments of the essay finalists before their peers. Finally, the Novel Experience serves to immediately engage new students in the Wofford campus community in an entertaining, fun, and academically challenging way, helping to ease their transition to college life.
Combining a common reading program with a planned off-campus activity (e.g., dinner disussions, film series, lecture series, or service opportunities) that engages and invests both students and faculty in the success of the program can have multiple positive outcomes. With creative and innovative thinking, a common reading program can play a vital role in helping new students acclimate to college. Wofford has found a way to make its common reading program a productive introduction not only to Wofford's academic expectations, but also to the culture of the campus and the local community.