A Book Party with the Presidential Scholars

book: Behold the DreamersI was sorry to miss Imbolo Mbue when she came to campus recently. Ms. Mbue is the author of the prize-winning novel, Behold the Dreamer, and she was here a few weeks after her book was the subject of discussion at a large book “party”—the year’s opening event for the college’s Presidential Scholars. I was at that party, one of more than 20 professors and administrators hosting a table of students over dinner. For 15 years, the Presidential Scholars program has opened the academic year with this “common read” event—a wonderful way to break the ice for the students, and, at the same time, engage in what we hope will be a lively, intellectually challenging discussion.

I had heard about this event for many years but this was the first time I was a participant—and I was eager to be there. I wondered about a variety of things: what
would be the quality of the dialogue…of the students’ literary interpretation…their critical thinking? What aspect of this book, rich with story lines, would ignite agreement or disagreement or the most interesting analyses? What about plot development…or the characters…would they find them believable? How would they deal with the book’s ambiguities? Of course, I wondered, too, whether my presence as president of the college might inhibit them in any way.

Altogether, there were 180 students participating. My table of seven, like almost all, was all-female—not a surprise when you consider that 85 percent of our student population is female. From what other hosts told me,it was otherwise a decidedly diverse group in terms of majors, economic status, ethnicity and class—we had students ranging from first year to senior. Questions had already been assigned to the students, which may have encouraged them to think more deeply about the book. At one table, I hear, each student seemed to focus exclusively on the one question assigned to her and the conversation was not as free-flowing as one might hope. That did not happen at my table. Moreover, I can say without question that there were some very impressive analytic thinkers at my table—most of whom, I believe, were not at all inhibited by me. The issue that dominated at my table was the moral dilemma that the book’s male protagonist, an immigrant from Cameroon, faced when confronted with a difficult demand by his boss’ wife—and that led to a probing, thoughtful discussion. Other aspects of the book dominated at other tables: the disillusionment with the American dream; gender issues raised by the relationship between the protagonist and his wife. (This issue gained little traction at my table, which I found puzzling.) One table got into a heated discussion about gentrification, and particularly the gentrification of Harlem where the protagonist lived, which they felt was ignored by the author.

What I heard most often, however, was the way in which our Presidential Scholars, some of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants, identified with this couple from Cameroon—and how poignant it was that they had read this book, and were having this discussion, in the shadow of President Trump’s announcement that he was
ending the program that had protected the “Dreamers,” the children of undocumented immigrants.

The Great Hall was alive with talk that evening—more so, said one professor, than other years, at least in his experience. There were even rumblings of social activism prompted by the Trump announcement. Another host said she was chagrined by how little detail she remembered compared to her students, who conducted what she called a rigorously intellectual and provocative dialogue. Indeed, I was impressed by the interpretive skills, the critical thinking, demonstrated by the students at my table. It would have been fascinating if Ms. Mbue had been with us that evening, hopping from table to table, to ask her own questions and to respond to the students’ perceptions.

As it happens, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education just the other day called “The Essential English Department”—an ardent defense of English as an academic discipline. In it, the author wrote that the best thing undergraduates can gain from literature is “a sense of the deep rich empowering pleasure of the literary experience, a sense that might keep them returning to the well for the rest of their lives.” Well, as a career college, FIT does not offer subjects like English as majors (although it is one of our popular liberal arts minors). Still, I suspect that for this group of undergraduates—no matter how career-focused—the pleasure of literature already has a foothold in their lives. Personally, I took great pleasure in this “book party,” a gratifying display of student excellence at FIT and a wonderful way to launch the new academic year.