For the second consecutive year, Elizabethtown College students and educators alike took part in the Open Book Initiative, a program which encourages first-year students and faculty to participate in several areas of activity: reading a book selected by a decision committee; participating in facilitated group discussions pertaining to the book; and attending seminars, lectures, and other events concerning the people, places, and relevant issues presented within the book. The Open Book Initiative has two major goals; one of these is “to foster a community of learners among students and educators by exploring a common text together,” and the other is “to provide readers with opportunities to consider their own world views through a different lens.” Ms. BethAnn Zambella, co-chair of the Initiative committee last year, believes that the Initiative has been ultimately successful in achieving these goals. But do students feel the same way? Now that they have read the selection, do they feel as though they are now a greater part of a learning community at the College? Do they feel that they’ve been given the opportunity to view the world through a different set of eyes?
As a first-year student last year, I was given the task of reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot for the Open Book Initiative of 2011-2012. I only opened the book a few weeks before classes were scheduled to begin, and I can’t say that I had it finished by the first day of school. In fact, even by the time I attended my first group discussion meeting, I still hadn’t completed the last third of the text. The group discussion itself, while facilitated in an enthusiastic manner by our staff leader, did not engage me. I did not attend any subsequent meetings.
While I didn’t consider the Open Book experience to be beneficial to my own academic pursuits at the College, I do admit that this wasn’t due to the book itself. The committee’s selection for my first-year class was not something that I might have picked out myself from a local Barnes & Noble, but I found that despite my reservations, I came to enjoy the book. I found Henrietta’s story to be engaging and compelling, sometimes in a revolting and shocking way, other times in a way that was heartwarming and deeply affecting. For me, the downfall of the reading experience was both the heaviness of the scientific material within the book and also the fairly large time lapse between the events of the story and our lives today. This created a sense of distance between myself and the material, a distance that was both chronological and emotional, and I couldn’t put this aside.
I still feel, however, that the Open Book Initiative is a worthwhile venture. The committee in charge of selecting books for the Initiative is a group of dedicated individuals who do the necessary work in order to choose the best selection. A few committee members read every single book that is nominated as a possible candidate for the Initiative, and these individuals evaluate the books based on several criteria, including whether the selection will appeal to students of all different disciplines. In this way, they make an effort to ensure that every student will enjoy at least some aspect of the reading, regardless of their area of study.
This year’s selection is The End of Country by Seamus McGraw. It is a dramatic but realistic account of the lives of landowners in Northeastern Pennsylvania who are facing a difficult choice: whether to sell their land to developers or remain there, watching their sell-out neighbors grow rich. It is the story of the Marcellus Shale and all the heated debate that surrounds it. The story of the Marcellus Shale has been a hot topic in Pennsylvania for the past few years, and the questions it raises about the competing national initiatives of environmental safety and improving the economy couldn’t be more relevant in this day and age. I hope that this year’s selection has allowed for fascinating, enlightening, and sometimes passionate discussion. I hope that my generation is taking an interest in what is happening in the world today. And I hope that they take greater part in this year’s program than I did during mine, and that they benefit from sharing ideas with their peers and faculty. While I’m not entirely sure if the Initiative’s goals were met this year, especially in the eyes of the first-year class, I do wish the best for the program itself. It’s a worthwhile initiative that, while it may not work for everyone, still gives students the opportunity to expand their horizons through reading. It’s up to the students themselves to take advantage of the opportunity.