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
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
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. …