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.

2020-2021 Common Text

Reading With Patrick book cover

The Common Text for 2020-21 is Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship. The book is both an inspiring story of friendship and a moving meditation on education, poverty, race, and criminal justice. Students should purchase a copy of the book to read before the academic year begins and to use in their First-Year Seminar. It is readily available in paperback (ISBN is 978-0-8129-8714-0).

After college, Michelle Kuo moved to rural Arkansas as an optimistic and motivated Teach for America volunteer. But she soon encountered the jarring realities of life in one of the poorest counties in America, still disabled by the enduring effects of slavery and Jim Crow. Kuo, the child of Taiwanese immigrants, shares the story of her complicated but rewarding mentorship of one student, Patrick Browning, and his remarkable personal awakening. In her time reading with Patrick, Kuo is herself transformed as she contends with the ongoing impacts of racism and the questions of what constitutes a “good” life and what the privileged owe to those with bleaker prospects.

As Saint Michael’s College celebrates fifty years of having women at the school, and as the United States celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage, we wished to mark these important anniversaries by selecting a book written by a female author. Michelle Kuo’s stirring memoir further resonates with the legacy and ongoing work of the Edmundites, from their efforts in the South during the Civil Rights movement to their continuing ministry in Selma, Alabama. Similarly, the book aligns with the aim of the FYS program to promote reflection on diversity and with SMC’s strong commitment to social justice. The text’s discussion of the criminal justice system also ties in well with the College’s new major in Criminology.

The poignant, probing exploration of education that is at the heart of Reading with Patrick reaffirms the focus in the First-Year Seminar program, and within the liberal arts tradition at Saint Michael’s, on the value of meaningful reading and writing, and of forging close connections between students and teachers. The example of Kuo’s work with Patrick illustrates how much a person can get out of reading and writing when given the opportunity and when guided with caring attention and patience. The author’s account is also notable for her humility in reflecting on her own assumptions, misjudgments, limitations, and failings. The book is clear-eyed and sobering, but hopeful. It calls us to confront historical and contemporary realities of socio-economic inequality and racism, to serve others, and to engage deeply and honestly with those around us.

Michelle Kuo

Author Michelle Kuo

Author Michelle Kuo was born in Michigan. Upon graduating from Harvard University, she taught English at an alternative school in Helena, Arkansas with Teach for America. As a student at Harvard Law School, she worked at the Criminal Justice Institute, a domestic violence and family mediation clinic, and the Education Law Clinic/Trauma Policy Learning Initiative. She received the National Clinical Association’s award for her advocacy of children with special needs. Kuo later worked as an immigrants’ rights lawyer at Centro Legal de la Raza, in Oakland, California. She has also taught courses at San Quentin through the Prison University Project. Currently, Kuo teaches at the American University of Paris on issues related to race, punishment, immigration, and law. She has published articles, both independently and with her husband Albert Wu, in various newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and the LA Review of Books.

Summer Assignment

Students will be asked to write a response to the Common Text. Check your SMC email in early August for your summer writing assignment. It will be sent by your First-Year Seminar instructor and will be due the first week of classes. (Note: Students in spring seminars will get their assignment over the winter break between semesters, but they should still read the book over the summer.)

Three essays by faculty responding to the book will also be posted on the SMC portal by the end of July. You will receive an email informing you when they are available. Your FYS instructor will expect you to have read the essays and may ask you to incorporate responses to them into your own essay about the book.

For more information, contact:
Peter Vantine
Director, First-Year Seminar Program
Associate Professor of Modern Languages
Joyce 155 / Box 276

Past First-Year Seminar Common Text Selections

2019-2020 Francisco Cantú The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches from the Border
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
2012-2013 Nicholas Carr The Shallows
2011-2012 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
2005-2006 Yann Martel The Life of Pi