A new entrée to college

Relevancy is focus for summer reading

Holy Cross freshman Mia Huntley of Andover scanned a newspaper as part of her summer assignment. She looks for arts coverage daily. Holy Cross freshman Mia Huntley of Andover scanned a newspaper as part of her summer assignment. She looks for arts coverage daily. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / August 17, 2009

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They’re rarely beach reading, those assigned tomes that incoming freshmen desperately skim through in the last weeks before college.

But this summer, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester is asking new students to trade in books for something many in their generation never pick up. Instead of, say, “A Pilgrim’s Journey,’’ the autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which was assigned to last year’s freshmen, new students have been asked to read the newspaper - then discuss articles with classmates in a new online forum.

The untraditional assignment, college faculty hope, will expand students’ knowledge about the world, improve their writing and critical thinking skills, and help them connect with one another.

“I wanted them to know that it can be a social event to read the paper and share these stories,’’ said Nancy Baldiga, dean of the freshman class and an associate professor in economics, who came up with the idea and dubbed it the Class of 2013 Paper Project.

So far this summer, students have debated weighty topics such as lowering the drinking age, President Obama’s national health care program, and Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation. They’ve also posted lighter fare about a bee infestation in the walls of a house, a study on redheads’ sensitivity to pain, and an Irish band founded by one student’s high school classmates.

Holy Cross is just one of several colleges that have recently begun tossing out the usual summer reading. Freshmen at Stonehill College in Easton are watching a documentary film about philosophy called “Examined Life.’’ Incoming students at Wheaton College in Norton are reading the graphic novel “Persepolis,’’ about a young Iranian girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution. And University of Pennsylvania students will be studying an 1875 Thomas Eakins painting that depicts a surgery in progress titled “The Gross Clinic.’’

“It’s a better idea than just being told, ‘OK, you need to read ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ ’’ said Mia Huntley, a Holy Cross freshman from Andover, who scans the papers for arts coverage every day. “The posts have exposed me to different topics that I may not have had any interest or desire to learn about before.’’

The online dialogue often captures her attention more than the newspaper story that was initially posted, said Huntley, who logs onto the class website about three times a week. Although students often disagree on issues, such as whether police racially profiled Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Huntley said her classmates have been respectful of one another’s opinions.

“We’re talking about things people are often afraid to talk about because we already feel a certain unity and respect amongst ourselves even though we haven’t met,’’ Huntley said. “It’s very comforting to have that level of security, especially when you’re going to a new school.’’

Some faculty and students were skeptical at first when Baldiga proposed reading newspapers instead of a book. They lamented the loss of tradition, and the unity of having everyone read the same thing. They worried that students unaccustomed to newspapers would skip the assignment altogether.

But of the roughly 750 students in the freshmen class, more than 420, or nearly 60 percent, have already logged onto the website, Baldiga said. Of those, more than 250 have posted articles or commented on someone else’s news post. Baldiga hopes that by the end of the month, all freshmen will have participated at least once.

“The best way to prepare for college is to read the paper,’’ she has told incoming students for years. The accounting professor has had to dissuade eager students from reading economics textbooks over the summer in preparation for class. By reading the paper, “everything will make so much more sense when they get to class because they will see the bigger picture,’’ said Baldiga, who edited her high school and college papers.

Holy Cross faculty and staff also have access to the website. Some professors said reading the students’ posts will help them tailor their teaching this fall.

“Reading the posts has reminded me that high school seniors think differently than college students,’’ said Katherine Kiel, an associate professor of economics. “This notion of critical thinking, that’s what we do at a liberal arts college. They need to know how to question authority. They need help making good arguments, and to evaluate and use data appropriately.’’

Political science professor Daniel Klinghard said he was surprised by the openness of the online conversations, because students often resist candor in the classroom.

Rashad Mohammed, a freshman from the Bronx in New York, said the only time he used to read a newspaper was while riding the bus or subway, peeking over the shoulder of a fellow passenger and scanning the headlines.

Now he regularly peruses newspaper websites and recently posted a story.

“I haven’t met most of these people yet,’’ Mohammed said of his classmates, “but this is a great way to understand where they’re coming from.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at