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Freak out on campus with freshmen

Students discussing a book

At first, Arjona Pjepi wasn’t thrilled about UNF Reads, the University’s new common reading program for freshmen. Being told she had to read “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner reminded her a bit of mandatory summer reading assignments in high school. But the engineering major finished the book before her first day in a college writing summer session class and has no regrets.


 “I would never have thought about what they wrote about, the different questions about things,” said Pjepi, who enjoyed meeting people through class discussions about the book.


Organizers of UNF Reads hope Pjepi’s experience will be repeated throughout the freshman class. The goal, according to Dr. Marnie Jones, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, is to create a common reading experience for freshmen as well as help “make students more intentional about what’s involved in active reading of an argument-based text.”


UNF is one of more than 200 colleges and universities nationwide to initiate a common reading program, many of which have done so in the past 10 years. Each university selects one book each year and has every freshman read it during the summer before arriving on campus. The book can be fiction or non-fiction and range from best sellers to the classics.


The program is designed to help introduce freshmen to college-level academic inquiry, create a university-wide learning community and give students opportunities to engage in academic discourse. “Freakonomics” demonstrates that important issues cross all disciplines.


Organizers patterned UNF Reads after the most successful common reading programs, which integrate the book into student orientations, group discussions and the classroom. This fall, UNF will begin a campus-wide discussion of Levitt and Dubner’s book during the Week of Welcome for freshmen, followed by other activities and events throughout the semester designed to further the discourse. Numerous activities such as discussion groups are planned at the residence halls. In addition, all ENC 1101 College Writing sections will use “Freakonomics,” and it will be a required or secondary text in other general education courses. About 80 percent of freshmen take ENC 1101.


The experience is designed to create a common intellectual experience focusing on ideas that cut across much of the general education curriculum, according to the UNF Reads Web site.


Pjepi said the discussion in her ethics class this summer focused on whether certain situations the authors brought out were ethical. It was clear in class whether a student had read the book, she said.      


Campus-wide buy-in is essential for the common reading program to be successful, and UNF is well on the way to achieving that goal, according to Dr. David Jaffee, assistant vice president of undergraduate studies. Organizers asked professors to consider whether they could incorporate the book into their disciplines, and many have done so. Economics professors were asked to identify upper-level students who could lead discussion groups in campus residence halls.


UNF’s General Education Council, which oversees the University’s general education programs, selected the book from suggestions submitted by about 50 faculty and staff. The book, which sold more than 3 million copies and spent two years on The New York Times best-seller list, uses economics to explore the hidden side of diverse subjects.


In what is arguably the most controversial chapter of “Freakonomics,” the authors present evidence linking a drop in the crime rate to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision 18 years earlier that legalized abortion. “. . . the crime rate continued to fall as an entire generation came of age minus the children whose mothers had not wanted to bring a child into the world. Legalized abortion led to less unwontedness; unwontedness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime,” the authors state.


“The value of this book is that they raise interesting and provocative questions,” Jaffee said.


The authors suggest that asking the right questions and drawing conclusions can help solve everyday mysteries and even disprove commonly held beliefs.


“It makes you think about a lot of stuff you hadn’t thought about,” said Salman Hussein, a freshman biology major who also finished the book before starting his college writing class this summer.


Hussein and Pjepi both said students “better read it because they’re going to be writing papers on it.”


UNF Reads gave each incoming freshman a hardback copy during orientation and assigned them to read it before fall classes begin. The freshmen also received a list of questions to consider while reading as well as an e-mail reminder during the summer about the assignment.


On the Web, UNF Reads offers a student guide to “Freakonomics,” information on participating in collaborative discussion, an instructor’s guide and links to other sites and information. The site also includes a “Freakonomics” blog.


In a letter this summer, Jones offered incoming freshmen a little surprise. “Welcome to college,” she wrote. “We are glad you are here – so glad we are presenting you with a quiz on ‘Freakonomics!’” An assignment and quiz before the first day of class? Jones explained that it’s only a diagnostic quiz and offered suggested readings and other tips for students who didn’t score well.


Offering students help in reading more challenging texts before they arrive on campus is one way that UNF can provide incoming freshmen with some of the tools necessary for a successful college experience.


Assigning incoming freshmen from diverse backgrounds the same book to read over the summer provides them a shared experience. That enables students such as Pjepi, an immigrant from Albania who has been in the United States for nine years, and Hussein, a native of Somalia who came to the United States three years ago by way of Egypt, to exchange ideas about their common experience – “Freakonomics” – with students from Florida and beyond.


“I think it makes it interesting because you can share different ideas of what you thought about it,” Pjepi said.


The ensuing activities in class and elsewhere on campus are designed to add to that common experience and help strengthen the UNF community. Jaffee said it also could enable the University to improve on its 78 percent freshman retention rate by helping students feel more a part of the campus community.