Thursday, July 20, 2017

Summer Reading List For Stanford’s Class Of 2021

(This post caps off a four-part series on the entering college and university classes of 2021.)

On July 16, 2017, Stanford News published a story on Stanford’s Summer Reading List for its entering class of 2021.  The following are excerpts from the story, written by Taylor Kubota, shortened (without changing the content or context of the story) for readability.

Stanford’s Three Books program prompts students to think about sustainability and equity
Earth systems Professor Noah Diffenbaugh aims to engage first-year students in challenging discussions with his Three Books selections centered on sustainability and equity.
Following 13 years of tradition, Stanford’s incoming, first-year students have received a special package for the summer: three books, carefully curated by a Stanford faculty member. Their assignment is to read all three prior to New Student Orientation, which will include a panel discussion with the authors.
The Three Books this year are Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert and Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)
 “In my research, I’m interested in understanding what it is about the physical climate – heat waves, drought, floods – that most impacts people and ecosystems,” Diffenbaugh said. “Once you begin to examine the relationship between people and the environment, it becomes clear that the big global challenges for this generation lie at the intersection of sustainability and equity – the two are inextricably linked.”
Diffenbaugh selected the books Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, BA ’11; The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert; and Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, BA ’99, MA ’00, a former Stegner Fellow in Stanford’s Creative Writing Program.
Engaging in difficult discussions
At the heart of Diffenbaugh’s decisions regarding this year’s Three Books is the desire to encourage students to think deeply and thoughtfully about challenging issues that lack clear-cut solutions. Diffenbaugh also believes the ability to work through these complicated topics will benefit students far beyond their academics.
“There are larger-scale discussions going on now, not just on campus, but nationally and internationally, and one of my goals is that our students are able to engage with those in a constructive way,” he said. “These books deal with highly charged topics where there’s no obvious solution. So, how do we have a reasoned discussion that leaves space for free speech and the free flow of ideas, where people can disagree and allow their views to evolve as a result of the dialogue? That’s an ongoing challenge, and this is an opportunity to wrestle with that experience right at the outset of college.”
Tied together
Beyond the fact that each book addresses difficult, timely issues, they are also unified by this year’s theme. Together, this collection shows how the realities of sustainability and equity can seem to exist in parallel but are, at their roots, intertwined.
Homegoing and The Sixth Extinction run in parallel, with Homegoing examining the history of how people have treated each other, and The Sixth Extinction examining the history of how people have treated the rest of life on Earth,” Diffenbaugh explained. “Salvage the Bones really brings those two together and examines the ways in which environmental vulnerability is shaped by poverty and access to both material and nonmaterial resources. It also speaks to the power of human resilience, even in the face of extreme environmental conditions and extreme inequality.”
A panel featuring all three authors, moderated by Diffenbaugh, will take place at Memorial Auditorium during New Student Orientation. This panel will be simulcast at the Pigott Theater for pre-major advisors and interested staff or faculty. Students participating in online discussions on Stanford Canvas can submit topics and questions for the panel.
In August, Stanford faculty and administrators chosen by Diffenbaugh will be hosting “Three Book Chats” on Canvas for students to get a preview of academic life at Stanford.
Descriptions of the 2017 Three Books program selections:
·       Homegoing is a novel that follows the lineage of two half-sisters born in different villages in Ghana and their descendants through eight generations. It details the troubling history of slavery on both sides of the Atlantic and the lasting impacts it had on those who were taken and those who were not.
·       The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History lays out the five mass extinctions that have occurred on Earth and makes a case, through science and narrative that the sixth is now underway, caused by human activity. This was the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner in General Nonfiction.
·       Salvage the Bones takes place in the 12 days immediately surrounding Hurricane Katrina, which Ward experienced firsthand. Its subjects are the Batistes, a family of five who, in advance of the storm, are already facing poverty, death of a parent, alcoholism and teenage pregnancy. This book won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction.
Comment On The Three Books
Professor Diffenbaugh is a highly regarded expert in his field of earth systems, environment and energy.  But that does not make him an expert on Africa and poverty, subjects of two of the books.
A true progressive might charge Professor Diffenbaugh with cultural appropriation, or worse, a White privileged member of the Western patriarchy condescending to select a book on persons with African roots.  An African or African-American Studies professor, preferable female, should be selecting a book on two half-sisters in Ghana and their descendants.  Similarly, a professor who has experienced poverty, or death of a parent, or alcoholism, or teenage pregnancy, yet surmounted one or more of these obstacles to achieve academic success, should be selecting a book on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on poverty stricken families.
The third book lies squarely in Professor Diffenbaugh’s ambit, but is biased in favor of the global warming side of the debate.  In fairness, he should also have selected a book that disagrees with man-made global warming so students could read and discuss both points of view.

Perhaps Stanford’s new provost, Persis Drell, in keeping with her remarks to the Faculty Senate on April 27, 2017, will advise next year’s faculty member entrusted with selecting the Summer Reading List to include a diversity of viewpoints.


Lori Dante said...
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