People & Communities
Book [Club] Report—An Alumna’s View
Book [Club] Report—An Alumna’s View

David Moore

*This piece was published as a mobile app extra with the March/April 2017 issue of Currents.*

CASE's Digital Communications Manager Meredith Barnett has participated in her alma mater's alumni-student book club for the past two years, leading discussions with incoming freshmen about the reading selections and talking with them about her own time as a student. Here's her perspective on how books can spark connections.

By the end of Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, the situation for Earth does not look good. A third of reef-building corals, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book, are on the road to extinction. Ditto for a quarter of all mammals and a fifth of all reptiles.

Given those grim facts, I wondered where to start a discussion about this work for my alma mater's student-alumni book club.

Now in its fourth year, Ohio University's Honors Tutorial College Alumni Book Club builds ties between students and alumni through a book discussion. Over the summer, the college's incoming first-years complete a common reading for a semesterlong freshman seminar. One of the seminar's activities is a book conversation with alumni. Students are divided into small groups, and each alumni volunteer is assigned to meet with a group for one hourlong talk. While some local alumni visit the Athens, Ohio, campus for the discussion, I Skyped in from my Washington, D.C., office. My group of six students gamely gathered around a laptop in a professor's office for our chat.

Logistically, the club is a sizable undertaking. But Cary Roberts Frith, associate dean of the college, says it's manageable because the program is small (72 freshmen) and worth the effort because the activity fits our culture.

"We happen to have a population of alumni who love to read and share their ideas," she says.

As an alumna, I've loved the opportunity to stay involved with the college virtually and to give back in a fresh way, and the club is a low-pressure volunteer activity. The conversation is what's valuable, says Nicholas Osborne, the college's lecturer who coordinates the book club and teaches the accompanying seminar. "It's an opportunity [for students] to learn a lot without feeling like it's a class," he says.

It's true; the books have been educational and fascinating. In 2015, we read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a nonfiction book about a black woman whose cells were taken without her knowledge and used for many scientific and medical breakthroughs. Osborne says the book was chosen because it addresses complex topics in an accessible, multidisciplinary way and can spark discourse about how to make the world a better place—"a big theme of the course as a whole" and one that Osborne feels is particularly important for first-year students to consider. (A film version of Skloot's book, starring Oprah Winfrey, premiers April 22 on HBO, so here's hoping we can host an alumni movie night.)

My group wasn't intimidated about tackling The Sixth Extinction's bleak environmental forecast. (As one student explained, with a degree of world-weariness, "I've been hearing about global warming since second grade.") I couldn't leave them with comforting answers, but that wasn't the point. Activities like this demonstrate how dialogue about big ideas—especially the dizzying, obstinate ones like climate change—extend beyond the classroom.

In his guidance to alumni participating in the discussions, Osborne suggested that beyond exploring the book's themes, we devote five to 10 minutes to describing our time in college and how it influenced our professional pursuits.

"Any deep, serious conversation about the book is great," he says, "but having the opportunity to talk with someone who's been through [the college] is important."

In addition to covering mass extinction and conservation and ethics, we also examined some equally fraught topics for college freshmen: tough classes, internships, and the nebulous world of life after graduation.

For those subjects, the best suggestion I could give (beyond "stay caffeinated") was this: When faced with challenges, sometimes the best place to start is a conversation.

~Meredith Barnett




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