In Praise of the First-Year Reading Choice and the Program’s Return



Before the Class of 2022 arrived on campus this year, they were sent and asked to read “The Origin of Others,” the latest work by Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison.  

Having a common reading for all incoming students has been a facet of the first-year experience on and off since at least since 1961. That year, students were asked to read “Lord of the Flies” and a collection of essays entitled, “The World Crisis and American Responsibility.” 

According to a short documentary from 1961 (you can find it on YouTube: “Vintage College Tour: The Story of Middlebury College”), a panel of faculty members would discuss the selection(s) in front of the first-year class and answer questions. 

Luckily, that model was abandoned, replaced by intimate small group discussions often led by faculty members. 

Not since 2015 has an incoming class been assigned reading.

The last book, “A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants,” was a memoir by an alumnus detailing his journey from Middlebury College to ordained Buddhist monk. 

While surely well-intentioned, the choice felt forced, as if the college were saying, “This is the kind of stuff Middlebury students should do after they graduate.” Many members of the Class of 2019 disliked the choice. 

It is essential that the selected reading foster conversations and challenge students to think critically about new ideas in new ways. “A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants” missed the mark. 

“The Origin of Others,” on the other hand, was the perfect selection for the Middlebury of 2018. The book is Morrison’s reflection on her own life and work, and the themes that permeate both, including race, fear and “the desire for belonging.” 

In other words, “The Origin of Others” deals with the very issues that we as an institution must continue to grapple with. Morrison’s work exemplified the community’s aspirational values of inclusivity, equity and social justice.

The choice also served as the foundation for the 2018 Clifford Symposium of the same name, which explored Morrison’s body of work and the overarching issue of racism in America. 

The decision to connect the first-year reading with the symposium came after discussions between the symposium’s faculty organizers, Residential Commons Faculty Heads and the staff in charge of orientation. According to Larry Yarbrough, a professor of religion and one of the symposium organizers, all agreed that the book would serve as a significant step towards engaging first-years in pertinent issues. 

In preparing to write this editorial, The Campus reached out to several first-year students and asked what they thought of the choice.

Many students appreciated receiving early exposure to rigorous discussions on difficult subject matter, the norm in college classrooms. Tying the book to the Clifford Symposium also lowered the barrier of entry into the potentially intimidating intellectual environment that a first-year may seek to avoid when choosing classes. Yarbrough said discussion leaders reported that a majority of incoming students were well-prepared for the conversations and most welcomed the opportunity to engage with the work.

Given the success of this year’s common reading, the administration should consider expanding the project to further incorporate the rest of the Middlebury community. Older students would benefit from having the option to participate, and it may help bridge divides between different class years. 

In order to incentivize participation, the college might also consider including more than just books. Creating a shared experience worthy of academic discussion can also stem from listening to a thought-provoking podcast or watching a film. 

No matter the form, the choice should center on the values and aspirations of the institution. This is what made “The Origin of Others” the perfect choice.