candygirl: Science Fiction Reading Builds Student Curiosity

As part of the One Book, One Conversation, One community initiative, candygirl (AUC Press, 2012), a novel by Egyptian Ambassador M. M. Tawfik, was chosen for this year’s inaugural launch. This fall, incoming freshmen, along with Peer Advising Leaders (PALs) and the Math Club, began to read Tawfik's novel. "PALs, who are integral members of the Common Reading Program, will be working directly with all admitted freshmen to encourage them to read the book, and the Math Club's promotion of candygirl stems from the fact that the protagonist in the book is a mathematician," explained Doris Jones, senior instructor in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition. She added that the impetus behind the Common Reading Program is to instill what she calls a “culture of reading” into AUC campus life. "Critical reading, which is one of the learning outcomes in the Freshman Program, can be measured while students pursue their studies at the University,” she said. Set in a world of avators and espionage, candygirl was chosen by a committee made up of students, faculty members and administrators because of its potential in engaging the AUC community in inquisition and thought-provoking discussion, with its blend of science fiction and thriller. All incoming freshman received a copy of the book to read over the summer, then, over the course of the semester, they will engage in a busy schedule of cocurricular activities, presentations and events that have been scheduled surrounding the book. These include students meeting the candygirl author, M.M. Tawfik, in November and participating in an essay and creative arts contest based on the book. There will also be a debate series and an Arabic translation colloquium, as well as a discussion of the book on AUC’s virtual second-life campus. In the interest of promoting community ties within AUC, the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement will hold campus-wide conversations on the topics occasioned by Tawfik’s work. Lastly, AUC will hold panel discussions with Egyptian authors, actors and film directors, titled “Egypt - Reading Together.” “I, along with many of my colleagues, strongly feel that students need to develop a sense of engagement with texts beyond the homework assignment," affirmed Jones. "When they do engage with texts required for homework, the text itself can take on a very different meaning, literally.” Based on a 2013 survey conducted by the Office of Data Analytics and Institutional Research (DAIR), reading habits among AUC students are disconcertingly low. In addition, the National Endowment for the Arts concluded reading by college students has lost its place of prominence. To combat this widespread phenomenon, AUC is taking measures to instill a culture of reading within the student body through the Common Reading Program. “We decided to begin with freshmen specifically to introduce them to University culture, to University life, to what they can expect as AUC students," said Jones, hoping this would evolve into a campus-wide initiative. Relating to more academic processes, “students are looking for something they can engage with critically,” she continued. “Reading, as we know, is an important, necessary process to learn about others, to empathize with others. The sharing of stories, reading books, reading the narratives of others, can actually carry you from one point of the globe to another, to spaces and places you’ve never explored before. It’s a magical process.” In efforts to connect AUC students to the world around them, the Common Reading Program is designed specifically to “develop a community; to create a sense of connectivity; to build bonds and interconnectedness around one subject; to precipitate dialogue,” noted Jones. This sense of building a more tight-knit community around reading was inculcated in the One Book, One Conversation, One Community program from the start. The process began with focus groups consisting of students and faculty members, explained Jones, and as these focus groups worked throughout the spring to choose an appropriate book for the following semester, at the conclusion of the process, a University-wide survey was sent asking the AUC community to recommend books they might deem appropriate for the entire campus to read. “That, too, was quite enlightening,” said Jones. “Overwhelmingly, suggestions for Egyptian novels were dominant. With this vital information, we determined our first inaugural text should be written by an Egyptian author with an Egyptian narrative.” In this way, the program aimed from the start to engage the entire AUC community in its work. Through the shared process of reading a modern Egyptian narrative, AUC’s incoming freshman class has been given the opportunity to enter the University under a banner of reading. Looking to the future of the Common Reading Program, Jones’s interest lies in maintaining the One Book, One Conversation, One Community program. “Our aim is to sustain a dialogue in the interest of our students, our faculty, our administrators and the entire AUC community, as well as sustain an interest in reading among our AUC students from which we can build a culture of reading,” said Jones.