Between Departments and Brooklyn College: The Common Reading

Economics Professor Robert Cherry has offered to teach an introductory English course. / Ta-Nehisi Coates

Economics Professor Robert Cherry has  offered to teach the first year common reading in introductory English classes, because he feels that Ta-Nehisi Coates is has painted an inaccurate picture of race in society.

Allegedly, Cherry’s suggestions for additions to the supplemental materials were shut down, which prompted Cherry to hunt down the emails of 44 different English 1010 instructors that were not originally provided to him.

“It is a contentious book that makes generalizations about white people that would never be allowed if they were made about black people,” said Cherry. A specialist in race relations, Cherry’s main concern is with the content of the book, and its refusal to be treated critically.

Cherry also says that “you have certain people in the English department to educate people about the racist nature of the United States…but they teach their politics.”

On this front, Associate Professor of English Jason Frydman disagrees. As a professor teaching English 1010, he feels “our society is driven by racial conflict, and talking about it is better than fighting about it.”

In addition, Frydman also states that the page of supplemental readings put together “a representative sampling from the media ecology of responses,” including reviews, articles, and more concrete texts.

“The idea is not to leave everyone comfortable, but to provide a comfortable space in which to encounter uncomfortable ideas,” argues Frydman. The art of composition and rhetoric is something he believes students can use to practice challenging authority, especially if they disagree with a text.

The process of choosing the book is also something that is a campus-wide project at Brooklyn College. Based on breadth of classroom use, the first year common reading must have “intersection of social themes that a diverse NYC first-year population can relate to,” which fits one of 10 criterion and five different common reading goals.

Frydman also mentioned that students in English 1010 classes are of a plethora of disciplines. “How different disciplines construct truth and evidence differently, that’s not an easy concept…and that’s something they’re going to learn as they choose their own majors.”

The multi-faceted approaches of the common reading the English department seeks to emulate that message, but it is still up to each professor to incorporate the book into his or her syllabus and the classroom.

Beginning with submissions of books by both faculty and students, it is the goal of the first year advisory board to make a shortlist submitted to the English department. Once the decision is made, there are forums focusing on how the book could be taught.

In the CUNY system, the common reading is also one of the parts of the first college year that creates a communal environment similar to established private institutions. Learning communities, residence halls and clubs are also factors that tie the community together.

In Frydman’s class, part of the book was taught in a way that focused students to seek audience and tone. For example, one assignment asked students to find parts of the texts that addressed both critics and supporters of the novel.

For the first year program, that also means intersections of creed and discipline. President of First College Year Programs Sara Crosby also mentions there are other purposes to the book, such as retention rate and building a supportive community. This is something she believes Cherry is “not interested in,” after noting that Cherry’s standards “differ from the committee’s selection criteria.”

Upon reflection, Crosby feels the committee tried to be “as accommodating as possible,” despite the fact that Cherry is not directly involved with the first year advisory board.

In the meantime, Cherry published his critique of the novel in the New York Post. His recommended sources for critical analysis included an article by criminologist Richard Rosenfeld in the Guardian and a New York Times article by Roland Fryer on police forces.

That being said, the focus of the common reading has shifted to a publication of student’s writing that’s chosen by professors from anything submitted over the course of the semester. It is in production and some students can expect to be published and celebrated the week students return to school on Nov. 29.

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