Reading initiatives build community, engage issues
"The Hate U Give" and "Reading with Patrick" seed discussions across wide cross-section of a book-loving Saint Michael's campus and alumni community
The community that reads together grows together – or so would seem to be the philosophy at Saint Michael’s College, where a variety of initiatives encourage students, alumni and faculty/staff to purposefully read and discuss timely and thought-provoking books together.
A notable example this year has been the widespread use — inspired by a Vermont Humanities Council recommendation for its statewide Common Read and the Black Lives Matter movement — of the book The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
This work was chosen to be a shared reading experience by both the Education Department as its “Common Read” for this year, and by the SMC Reads — a relatively new and expanding quarterly book group, initiated last year by the College’s Office of Alumni and Parent Relations and patterned on similar groups at many colleges, to promote lifelong learning and engaging discussions among alumni, parents and faculty/staff.
Other longstanding common reading experiences at Saint Michael’s are the First-Year Seminar Common Text, which focuses and unites entering students on a carefully chosen work to start their academic experiences at the College; and the Pontigny Society, a longstanding, primarily faculty-staff group which, until the pandemic, met regularly to discuss books relating to the College’s Catholic heritage and mission.
It is not uncommon to see some cross-pollination on book choices for these groups, as with Thomas’s book this year, given the recent prioritized desire to directly engage important themes of race and privilege; or as with this year’s First-Year Seminar Choice, Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick, which also was the first SMC Reads selection for Summer 2020.
Published in 2017, The Hate U Give focuses on a 16-year-old young woman striving for balance between the poverty in her predominantly black neighborhood and the wealthy, white school she attends. The protagonist, Starr Carter, experienced an immediate loss after witnessing the death of her friend caused by police brutality. Thomas’ bestselling book was later adapted into a film just one year after publication.
Michelle Kuo’s Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship — the SMC Reads selection for summer 2020 as well as the First-Year Seminar Common text for 2020-2021, is an inspiring story of friendship, and a moving meditation on education, poverty, race, and criminal justice. Reading With Patrick was selected this past April to be the common text, which all incoming first-year students read for their first-year seminars. That selection was made in April.
Valerie Bang-Jensen of the College’s Education Department said this will be the eighth year of the Education Department Common Read. “Our prior seven books were: Wonder, Home of the Brave, El Deafo, Brown Girl Dreaming, Same Sun Here, Girl Rising, and George,” she said.
She explained that the Vermont Humanities Council this year chose the novel, The Hate U Give as their Vermont Reads book, and Beth Dietrich, formerly of the Saint Michael’s Durick Library staff and now at Champlain College’s library, invited the Education Department Common Read committee to join forces in participating.
“The Saint Michael’s Education Department had been planning to choose a book this year that would help our students and department engage in discussions of racism in the U.S., and thought that joining Champlain for a cross-college ‘read’ would work well,” Bang-Jensen said.
Since The Hate U Give also was made into a 2018 film, events so far in the Education Department connecting to the book have included an October gathering of St. Mike’s and Champlain students via Zoom to view and discuss the film. Margaret Bass, special assistant to Saint Michael’s President Lorraine Sterritt for diversity and equity, who previously had taught a “pop up course” on this novel, offered initial thoughts for the film-focused Zoom, and then students, faculty, and staff in attendance discussed the story in breakout rooms, including affinity groups.
Another coming event will be a panel discussion titled “The Hate U Give: Classroom Perspectives,” scheduled for Thursday, November 12 at 5 p.m. (link available next week to attend, in the Daily Digest on-campus email). According to the announcement for that event, “We are pleased to be hosting a panel of teachers and experts who offer firsthand experience using the book to teach about race and racism in the classroom with middle and high school students. The panel will feature: Dr. Margaret Bass, special assistant to the president for diversity and equity; Kaitlyn Roukey, SMC ’20, 8th grade Language Arts at Vergennes Union High School; Christie Beveridge Howell, program manager, Champlain College Women’s and Gender Center.”
First-Year Seminar going strong
Peter Vantine, director of the Saint Michael’s First-Year Seminar Program (and also chair, classical and modern languages & literatures and associate professor of French), said Kuo’s memoir, Reading with Patrick, was selected by a committee of three faculty members who teach in the First Year Seminar (FYS) program: Bill Ellis, Christina Root, and Vantine as director.
“Each year, I invite two colleagues to assist me with the selection of the text for the following year, though I also solicit suggestions from all faculty or even the broader campus community,” Vantine said, “and suggestions from students, staff, faculty, and alumni are all welcome.”
The process begins anywhere between the end of the fall semester and the start of the spring semester, he said, “and we aim to announce a decision by around mid-March. We consider a wide range of genres and styles, and we seek to select a book that both exemplifies good, engaging writing and will lead to robust reflection and discussion.”
Seminar leaders ask students to read the book over the summer, along with three faculty essays reflecting on the text. Traditionally, these three faculty members then engage in a panel discussion and Q&A session with students during Orientation immediately prior to the start of the semester, though they decided to forgo the panel discussion this year due to the modified Orientation program as a result of the pandemic (and related concerns of how much time students already were having to spend online).
Most FYS instructors ask their students to come to the start of their First-Year Seminar having written a short essay of their own about the book. Each FYS section spends the first week of the semester (or more) discussing the text, and Vantine invites one or more related speakers to speak to first-year students toward the start of the fall semester — preferably the author, when possible, and ideally the first week of the semester, as was the case with Michelle Kuo (online) this fall. In many seminars, there will be occasions to refer back to the Common Text throughout the semester as it continues to resonate with other readings, discussions, and work encountered in the course.
“Each year the choice of a Common Text feels simultaneously daunting and exciting,” Vantine said. “I appreciate the wealth of suggestions we receive, and I am incredibly grateful to my hard-working colleagues who contribute their time to helping select a text for a given year. Ultimately, as a First-Year Seminar instructor, it is then very satisfying to see, hear, and read how our Saint Michael’s students engage with the reading, as well as with each other and with us through the reading.”
Keeping alumni, parents connected
Jacob Pelletier ’14 of the College’s Alumni and Parent Relations Office said the SMC Reads initiative emerged from a brainstorming session among his colleagues last year.
“We started SMC Reads just this summer, though it is something we’d been talking about in the Alumni & Parents office for a while,” Pelletier said, “but with this year’s shift to mostly virtual events, we thought it was a great opportunity to reconnect alumni with each other — reconnect those many graduates who want to continue on this path of lifelong learning and would enjoy reconnecting with faculty members as well.
The goal is to have four books selected annually for a common reading and virtual discussion, he said, “and for the book to be relevant to something happening at St. Mike’s or a recommendation from faculty members for the discussion we’ll have.” In the case of The Hate U Give, he is working on finalizing a faculty connection to join Margaret Bass in leading the online discussion set for November 19.
“We’ve had great feedback from alumni so far on this,” he said, “with a pretty engaged Facebook group and quite a few registrants for the first book this summer, close to 40 who said they would join in the reading, with 20 of those participating in the online discussion.” Organizers tapped Vantine’s expertise on book-discussion events to recruit faculty participants and say some words to alumni about the First-Year Seminar experience they were indirectly connecting to.
The format of that summer discussion after Vantine spoke was going into break-out groups for smaller in-depth discussions on topic questions before coming back as a larger group for another 15 minutes or so to report out on key conclusions. “People had time to speak,” Pelletier said.
He was excited that participants ranged from more recent graduates from 2017 back to graduates from the 80s, along with “some friends of the college who participated” such as the daughter of an alumnus who liked the book. Pelletier, a sociology and political science graduate who was accustomed as a student to in-depth discussions and has missed them, helped facilitate a breakout room.
“Our goal was allowing alumni to have those deeper conversations that happened in the classrooms when they were students here — facilitating a space where you can have those most thoughtful discussions on topics affecting us all.” For the first two titles, he and colleagues looked to the other campus reading groups and faculty recommendations, along with the Humanities Council suggestions. While current students did not join in the discussions the first time with so much going on this semester, Pelletier thinks that would add a nice element for alumni to interact with them in the future. “We plan to continue doing it virtually so the pandemic shouldn’t get in the way of continuing uninterrupted,” he said. “We’ve had a few ideas for the next one already submitted but haven’t made any official decision yet.”
Group mothballed by pandemic hopes to adapt
The Pontigny Society for the past 20 years or so has focused each year on two book titles related to the College’s Catholic mission — both novels and non-fiction books with spiritual themes, with in-person meetings drawing upwards of 50 participants in the past; but the group has been dormant since the pandemic, said Edmundite Fr. Marcel Rainville ’67, one of the principal leaders of the group in recent years.
In a normal year, he said, he would meet with an advisory board of faculty and staff members to select a book, but the demands of the pandemic have put that on a back shelf for now — though he hopes Society members might develop a way to move forward with selections and common reading in the near future through virtual technology, as other groups have done.
“It has been my intention to meet with Advisory Board in order to strategize, especially about recruiting new people to join us, and given that a large number of those who were attending our meetings were retired or were retiring,” said Father Marcel, who stepped in recently as an interim chair of the Trustees for a time, consuming much of his time. “I still hope to have at least a Zoom meeting with the Advisory Board in order to deal with these questions.” The last Pontigny advisory board meeting was last March
“I do hope that we can get something going next semester, even if only via ZOOM,” said Fr. Marcel. “I am still hopeful that we can have a May retreat at St. Anne’s Shrine, COVID permitting. Fr. Sweeney, who was going to give the retreat last May, has told he would love to present to us in 2021, if we are able to. I’d love to have a celebration of a return to some normalcy, if we were to have the retreat. I reiterate my desire to do what I can to bring back the Pontigny Society!”