First Year Seminar: Common Text

Each year, Saint Michael’s College chooses a common text to be read and discussed by the incoming class of new students. All first-year students are asked to read the book over the summer prior to arriving on campus. A panel discussion of the book is held during Orientation in late August, and each First-Year Seminar discusses the book at the start of the fall and spring semesters.

2019-2020 Common Text

The Common Text for 2019-20 is The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú. The book is available in paperback; you should purchase it right away, if you haven’t already. The ISBN is 978-0735217713, and you should be able to find a paperback edition for about $15 or less:

Cantú grew up in the Southwest, in proximity to the border. In college, he studied and became fascinated with immigration and border issues. After graduating, he then worked for the United States Border Patrol in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas from 2008 to 2012, seeking to go beyond his more distant, intellectual understanding of the subject and to understand border enforcement up close, on the ground. For four years he grappled with his role in a problematic system whose consequences are often dire.

The book delves into the contentious topic of the United States border with Mexico from a deeply personal perspective, while also providing some historical context. As Cantú’s memoir traces the evolution of the author’s feelings and thinking about the border and the migrants he encounters, it also reflects on his own family’s Mexican heritage and his relationship with his mother, a former ranger with the National Park Service who worries both about her son’s physical safety and the deeper effects that his difficult, morally ambiguous work may have on him.

By examining the violence and dehumanizing treatment faced by migrants, Cantú reveals how such troubling realities have become normalized and treated as routine. The Line Becomes a Riverencourages readers to reflect on our shared humanity and think critically about the policies and discourse that surround the border. Through the book, the author seeks to capture both the hardships and the beauty of the border, allowing readers to feel closer to harsh landscape and those who risk their lives to cross it.

Francisco Cantú is a former Fulbright fellow. He has received a Pushcart Prize and a 2017 Whiting Award for emerging writers. His writing and translations have been featured in Best American Essays (2016), The New Yorker, Harper’s, n+1, Orion, and Guernica, as well as on This American Life.

Summer Assignment

As part of the Common Text, your first-year seminar instructor will ask you to write a response to the text; you should watch your SMC email and home postal mail in early August for your summer writing assignment, due the first week of classes. (Students in spring seminars will get their letters over the winter break, but should still read the book over the summer.)

Additionally, essays by three faculty responding to the book will be posted on the SMC portal by the end of July. You will receive an email informing you when they are available. During Fall Orientation, you’ll participate in a panel discussion with these faculty, so your instructor will likely ask you to also read their essays and perhaps incorporate responses to them into your own essay.

For more information, contact:
Peter Vantine
Director, First-Year Seminar Program
Associate Professor of Modern Languages
Klein 114 / Box 227

Past First-Year Seminar Common Text Selections

2018-2019      Lin-Manual Miranda, Hamilton: The Musical
2017-2018      Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
2016-2017       Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
   *To hear Ung’s conversation with first-year students in fall 2015, watch this video.
2015-2016       Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
2014-2015       James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
2013-2014       The Book of Job
2012-2011       Nicholas Carr, The Shallows
2011-2010       Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals
2010-2011       Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe
2009-2010       Kafka, The Metamorphosis
2008-2009       Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower
2007-2008       Isak Dinesen, “Babette’s Feast”
2006-2007       Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
2004-2006       Yann Martel, The Life of Pi