Whitman College reading program spurs discussion

The summer reading for first-year students, 'Zeitoun,' will be the focus of a public discussion Saturday.



Surrounded by her parents Wilson Alvarez (yellow) and Laura Carreno de Alvarez (bright yellow) and siblings Annagrisel and Patrick (far left), Whitman College first-year student Nilce Alvarez (center left, in gray) introduces new friends she's made her first day on campus while playing games at a picnic table. A large group of other students play a socializing game to get to know one another as part of the school's opening week activities. Thursday, August 26, 2010


Bailey Aarango (left), Sunith Hinagola (center) and Sam Epstein (right) form a trio of Whitman College Residence Life staff members performing guitar music for groups of first-year college students socializing outside their residence halls Thursday evening. Thursday marked the first day of the college's opening week series of programs to help new students get to know each other and the college before classes start next week. Thursday, Augsut 26, 2010

WALLA WALLA -- The Whitman College class of 2014 arrived on campus Thursday to kick off a week of orientation, meeting faculty and classmates, and easing into college life -- both socially and academically.

On Saturday, students will be asked to follow through on their first academic assignment, which all students were expected to complete over the summer. First-year students will listen to key faculty members discussing the summer reading assignment, "Zeitoun," by Dave Eggers. The nonfiction story is set in the bleak apocalyptic world of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The book follows with intricate detail the life of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a 47-year-old Syrian-American and successful builder and businessman, in the days immediately before and after the devastating storm strikes.

Since 1998, each new class of Whitman students has been asked to read a book during the summer between high school and college. And each year, a long process of selection and review draws out a fitting book for the students to study and analyze.

When Zeitoun, a respected and well-known community member, disappears for weeks just one week after the storm strikes, his family and friends fear the worst. But even their fears could not have matched the reality of Zeitoun's disappearance in a transitional New Orleans ravaged by crime, lawlessness and paranoia.

Saturday's faculty panel is meant to be an introduction of students to academic life at the school. The lectures, by faculty members representing the geology, religion and history departments, will also set the tone for intimate student discussions that will take place immediately after throughout campus.

Those group discussions are lead by the students' resident assistants and student academic advisors. Part of the goal of the discussions is to get students thinking intellectually, while being able to discuss their thoughts and ideas in a group of their peers, said Nancy Tavelli, associate dean of students and director of residence life and housing.

Tavelli offers training to the resident assistants and student academic advisors on how to lead the discussions, have questions ready, and guide the direction of the talks.

"The idea is to have students talking to one another with some guidance from a peer," Tavelli said. "We hope that continues on throughout their years here."

The college specifically picks books each summer that are timely, cover challenging topics, and can draw a variety of opinions. Last year, students read "The Last Town on Earth" by Thomas Mullen. The historical fiction novel tells a story about what life might have been like in a small Washington state town during the outbreak of the Spanish Flu in the early 20th century.

In 2008, it was the graphic novel "The Complete Persepolis," in which author and illustrator Marjane Satrapi chronicles her childhood in Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution.

Although assigning a book to read over the summer is practiced by other liberal arts colleges, Tavelli said Whitman's program is unique because it includes the faculty panel. A visit by the author is also scheduled Sept. 28.

"I like the way we do it," Tavelli said. "The faculty giving some guidance, and then the students discussing with each other."

She said the discussions also teach a lesson to students on how to discuss and argue without taking offense or losing the point.

"We don't all have to agree," she said. "To learn how to do that is a wondering skill. To disagree but be able to express your opinions."

The program started in 1998 with former Whitman president Tom Cronin. Students read "The Visit," a 1956 play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, for the first assignment. Each year the books have grown more timely with current events, and the program has grown to include visits to the campus by the authors, as well as greater community involvement.

The last several years, residents throughout the Valley have been asked to read copies of the books along with the students. Jed Schwendiman, associate to current President George Bridges and a member of the committee that helps pick each year's book, said there are close to 75 copies of "Zeitoun" donated by the college and placed in various public libraries and schools.

Schwendiman said the assignment is meant to help kick off a year of academic study. But organizers have learned the discussions often start before students even reach campus.

"Even before they arrive on campus they're talking to each other on Facebook about the book," he said.

Eggers' visit next month will also include a visit from Zeitoun and his wife, who will speak about what has happened in their lives since the experiences detailed in the book took place.

The book is sure to be a topic of strong discussion, as it touches on themes of religious freedom, prejudice, human rights and what it means to be American.

"There are different interpretations, and different political reactions to what is happening," Schwendiman said about the book. "I think the students learn that it is OK to talk about those differences, without either shutting down or taking so much offense that you can't continue the dialogue."

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.


Faculty panel

2:30-3:30 p.m. at Cordiner Hall

Panelists will be Patrick Spencer, professor of geology; Jocelyn Hendrickson, assistant professor of religion; and Jacqueline Woodfork, assistant professor of history. The faculty members will share their unique, discipline-specific perspectives on "Zeitoun" by Dave Eggers. Free and open to the public.

Soul Rebels

5:30-7 p.m. at the Reid Campus Center lawn

Saturday, August 28, 2010 5:30 - 7:00 p.m., Reid Campus Center Lawn

The Soul Rebels are a New Orleans group that has performed internationally and continues to gather for shows in New Orleans, although band members moved away once Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.


Whitman College's Summer Reading program enters its 12th year with the nonfiction work "Zeitoun" by Dave Eggers. The story chronicles with painful detail the nightmarish experiences of Abdulrahman Zeitoun in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A visit by Eggers and the Zeitouns is scheduled for Sept. 28.


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