Film Gives Freshmen a First Lesson ; Some Colleges Are Promoting Film Discussions, Rather Than Reading Analysis, for New Student Orientation

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During orientation, students at Lafayette College paused between the ice breakers and the talks about behaving responsibly to watch a movie. Far from being an entertainment break, it was their first intellectual exercise on the Easton, Pa., campus.

While many colleges include a book discussion in orientation, this summer Lafayette sent out a guide to "reading" film, inviting new students to take a closer look at "Crash," an Oscar-winning look at racial dynamics in Los Angeles. After a screening at orientation in late August, they met with professors in groups of 30 to talk about everything from stereotypes to camera angles.

"It was a good idea, because ... being in such a diverse place as Lafayette, you need to be aware of other people's cultures, so that you don't have to crash with them," says Ryan White, a new student from Washington, D.C., who plans to study neuroscience.

He says the 90-minute session got his "brain flowing" for the level of intense discussions he'd soon be having in philosophy class. And, as an African-American on a campus that's only about 20 percent minority or international students, Mr. White was pleasantly surprised that orientation addressed diversity so directly.

"They kind of went straight into the fire with it," he says. "It shows they take this issue seriously."

Common reading experiences for college freshmen have been around for more than a decade, but they've grown in popularity in the past five years, says Jodi Levine Laufgraben, an associate vice provost at Temple University in Philadelphia. They give students a chance to know professors in a less formal setting. They introduce students to how they're expected to back up arguments with evidence from the "text."

And in Lafayette's case, the experience asks a visual generation to be more analytical about what they're seeing.

Ms. Laufgraben is not aware of many campuses that have opted for a film instead of a book, but says there's a trend toward combining various media.

At Temple last year, incoming students read "West of Kabul, East of New York," by Tamim Ansary, and "Crash" was one of the movies playing in a related film festival. Emerson College students arriving in Boston this week will read Ernesto Che Guevara's "Motorcycle Diaries" and watch a documentary about the photographer who made a famous image of the Latin American revolutionary.

Lafayette has made an effort in recent years to involve the entire campus, not just first-year students, in common experiences that strengthen civic discourse.

"In the wake of 9/11, we've seen that discussions have become polarized.... [But] if in higher education we can't have important discussions about difficult issues, then where else can we?" says Gladstone "Fluney" Hutchinson, an economics professor and Lafayette's former dean.

Inspired by the work of the Imagining America consortium based at the University of Michigan, Mr. Hutchinson and others have worked to give students outlets to express perspectives on what it means to be American. Last year, Lafayette's orientation used Art Spiegelman's graphic novel "In the Shadow of No Towers," which provoked many "serendipitous conversations," Hutchinson says, about perceptions of America since the 9/11 attacks.

As dean of studies at the time, Hutchinson says he braced himself for controversy, but it never came. …