Reflections on the Common Read

Summer is coming to a close. Target is filled with bedding, shelving, and everything else incoming students will need to make their dorm rooms theirs. The weather is turning cooler at night, and my calendar is filled with meetings to ready our library for incoming students. If you’ve been following Mount Holyoke College social media outlets, you’ve seen our hashtags: #jorgeknows and #marysbag. I’ll have more to say on those in a few weeks as we roll out our programming. For now, I want to comment on one of my favorite start-of-term activities for incoming students: the common read.

Some might say: the common read, who cares? Well, I believe the common read is an essential component of orientation, especially at selective liberal arts college like Mount Holyoke and my alma mater, Smith College. In many cases, the book is one of the only commonalities students may share; no matter if they arrived to campus from New Jersey or Beijing, they read the same book. If nothing else, newly arrived students can reliably make chit chat about the book, whether they enjoyed it, whether it was too long, whether it was enthralling or pedantic. It is an immediate and common bond.

During my last semester at Hampshire College, I served on the college-wide common read committee, a group tasked with selecting next year’s book for incoming students to read. I knew going into the experience that I had warm, pleasant feelings about common read programs; I had such fond memories of my own experiences reading My Year of Meats / Ruth Ozeki before my first year at Smith in 2000. I loved reading the book that summer between my cashier shifts at Blockbuster Video. Reading the book as I readied myself to leave home help ease my anxieties about fitting into a new community; was I academically prepared enough? Would I have anything worthwhile to say? Would the students of Smith realize that I was an inferior interloper (IMPOSTOR SYNDROME!)? The book became my outlet. I think it read it twice that summer.

When I arrived on campus, the freedom to be out of the closet, to no longer be the person that hid underneath heaps of hair and quiet dourness in high school, was overwhelming. I was not accustomed to being honest about who I was or how I really felt. I almost did not know what to say or where to start, so I started with the common read. It was a low threshold to talk about a book most everyone read. It helped eased my transition. Finally, as orientation week came to a close, Ruth Ozeki herself come to John M. Greene Hall to give a talk about her book. It was a wonderful talk; Ozeki touched on her own experiences at Smith, and gave us first years a spirited go get ’em! Ruth Ozeki’s talk was the first time I ever heard an author speak about his or her work publicly; a direct connection between a published work and the person who wrote it. It was powerful and inspiring.

Afterwards, first year students were invited to follow Ozeki to the Alumnae House to get copies of her book signed. Many of us went; I remember waiting in a long line. Most of my cohort enjoyed the talk and we chatted amongst ourselves as we waited to meet the author herself. I made some friends, felt a sense of school community I had never felt before, and finally, when my turn came, I met Ozeki. She was friendly and warm and took my book, asked my name, and wrote an inscription on the cover page: “For Caroline-Have a great time at Smith! Ruth L. Ozeki.” This interaction gave me inspiration to try my best, to take big risks, and learn as much as I could at Smith. My dog eared copy of My Year of Meats moved with me to every room I lived in at Smith, every apartment I inhabited in Florence, New Haven, Somerville, and Northampton. It psyched me up; I can do this.

My Year of Meats / Ruth Ozeki

My Year of Meats / Ruth Ozeki

Of course, Smith was a challenge; my classes, classmates, and experiences in athletics, music, and college radio pushed me in all the right ways, but my years at Smith were not without their dark days. During those periods when I questioned everything, my direction, my intelligence, my ability on the crew team to pass a 2K test, or land gainful employment after graduation, I turned to My Year of Meats as a reminder of what brought me to the College. I thought about the opportunity to learn, grow, and evolve as a critical thinker, but also to have a great time, watch the sun rise on the Connecticut River, to find love, and come to terms with myself.

Caroline Pinto entered Smith College in 2000, but Caro Pinto graduated in 2004. Did the common read ensure my success? No, but it gave me inspiration and a sense of belonging at a moment when everything felt up for grabs. As the chips fell during my college career, the book remained on my shelf and in my heart. I hope this year’s Mount Holyoke students have the same positive experience with their common read.

On Zotero , Research & the LMS

I love doing research consultations with students. I take pleasure in helping them narrow broad topics that could sustain six dissertations into reasonable research morsels for 10 and 20 page papers or successful Division III independent projects.

How do students go from topics that can sustain six dissertations to topics appropriate for a senior project or 20 page research paper? Often, students can begin to narrow and refine their topics once they do some reading. However, one of the persistent roadblocks students encounter during this phase is how to find the first source they need to address their topic. I find that for many students, finding the first *relevant* source is always the hardest part.

To surmount that obstacle, one of my common recommendations is for students to pick a reading from their course syllabus and look it up in the library catalog – or in an article databases like JStor or Project Muse – to see what the subject headings and/or the keywords are. Then, the student can click on the most relevant word or heading and voila, instant sources!

But locating that interesting reading from the syllabus and remembering which saved pdf it was on the cluttered desktop can be a challenge for many students in the age of the learning management system. When I was in college ten years ago, I read from the trusty course pack, a giant set of readings that I kept in one place and could easily reference. These days, many students download readings to their desktops; some do so with an organizational scheme, others without one. Watching students deal with information overload these past few semesters, I started thinking about how their course readings, research, the LMS, and Zotero could intersect in powerful ways to empower students to successfully manage research over the course of semesters.

This year, I am very excited to be on a Kahn Liberal Arts Institute short project called “From HyperCities to Big Data and #ALT-AC: Debated in the Digital Humanities.” As part of the project, the organizers assigned participants reading that we could download from Smith College’s LMS. Great! I could download the pdfs to Dropbox, open them in iBooks and read. Then I realized that if I did that, these pdfs would just live in the pdf graveyard that is my iBooks library on my iPad. Many of the readings were excerpts, decontextualized for their full citations in the library. How could I connect the citations to the excerpt so I could easily keep track of both?

Answer: Zotero.

So, I saved the citations from Moodle into Zotero, downloaded the pdfs to Dropbox, attached them to the citations in Zotero, read and annotated PDFs on my iPad. Great!

Which got me thinking about students and research. I evangelize about Zotero in my research education classes about using it to collect and manage citations for research projects. But what about using it to manage their coursework, too? That way, when prompted for an example of a class reading that resonated, that could put them on the path towards successful source gathering, they could have it right there in the library?

I know for me, keeping professional reading I do in Zotero, always on the ready to generate bibliographies to share with colleagues has been a boon to productivity and my personal knowledge management. Now, to evangelize about this workflow for managing course assets!

Consortial Change Agents: We’re Better Together

Along with Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, and the University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College is one of five colleges in the Five College Consortium in the Pioneer Valley. Students enrolled in any of the five schools can take courses at the other campuses, and can borrow books from the other colleges. As a Five College graduate, I took advantage of the reciprocal lending agreements frequently during my undergraduate and graduate years in the Valley. Now, as a professional librarian at Hampshire, I work closely with my colleagues across the Valley on a number of different projects, usability questions, and topics in the digital humanities. While these collaborative relationships have nearly a forty year history in the Five Colleges and enjoy institutional support and strength, I want to talk about an informal – and sometimes invisible – consortium of librarians across higher education, a fellowship that exists on Twitter and through relationships forged through programs like Immersion and at national and regional conferences.

As academic librarians tackle difficult the questions of how to support students in online environments, how to promote open access and new forms of scholarly communication, and how to collect for a twenty-first century library, they should not despair; while looking to colleagues at home institutions for support, they should also look towards other librarians across the profession for support, to act as a sounding board, for information, for advice. In the last few months alone, I’ve gone to Twitter for collection development questions, a colleague in New York City about digital directions in science, and joined the Program Committee for ISIS, a decentralized online community of technologists and librarians. Twenty-first century librarians are better together; collectively we can tackle the challenges that lie ahead at our home institutions, during webinars, through crowdsourced conversations on social media, and at conferences. Together, we can.

This happened yesterday.

I can tell you that the days of white, wealthy, upper-class students from prep schools in cashmere coats and pearls who marry Amherst men are over. This is unfortunate because it is this demographic that puts their name on buildings, donates great art and subsidizes scholarships.

via monodialogue


CP at Caseus

CP at Caseus

I Found it in the Archives!

I Found it in the Archives!

“The Good Old Days” revived at Bill’s Gay Nineties-ad from ca. 1940 via the Menden Collection, the Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College. The title of this post brazenly repurposed from Smith College’s Archives Concentration’s program flyers seen around their … Continue reading