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It was an experiment involving a 2400-year-old play, a couple thousand lunches, 140 faculty members and 2200 students attending their first University class. And according to professors, administrators and students, the University's experimental assignment of Bacchae as summer reading for all incoming students was a success. The 85-page play by Euripides, which was mailed to students in July and reviewed in small group sessions led by faculty Tuesday, was assigned as a common intellectual experience for new students, according to Vice Provost for University Life Kim Morrisson, who led one of the sessions. Morrisson said the close contact with professors in the discussions was intended to introduce students to the intellectual resources of the University. Alice Kelley, English Department Undergraduate Chairperson, said she thought the discussion of Bacchae was a good supplement to Orientation Week activities. "I like the idea of their doing something like this in addition to [talks about] how to cope at the University," said Kelley, who also led a discussion. The Bacchae experiment is a merging of two independent ideas, according to Kent Peterman, a College administrator who helped organize the project. Peterman said faculty associated with the student residences had been searching for a way to engage new students in an intellectual activity when, at the same time, the Theatre Arts program proposed staging Bacchae along with workshops about the use of masks and other elements of Greek theater. Bacchae is also part of the curricula of 15 courses in the College, and students taking those courses will be able to participate in the workshops. Peterman said the play was selected for practical reasons as much as for its content, but he added that it addresses many controversial issues that are currently being debated at University. "I don't think anyone intended this, but it turned out it was an ideal text because it was a classical text, but it spoke to the debate about classical values," he said. Euripides' work addresses themes of gender relations, war, religious diversity and acceptance of foreign values, among others. Religious Studies Professor Stephen Dunning, who led a session and who also teaches Bacchae in one of his classes, said discussion of the play let him bring up these issues. "I don't think the freshmen coming in are in a position to appreciate the cleverness of the choice [of the play]," Dunning said. "Not many are aware of the debates over the issues of politically correct study. The genius of the choice is that it is part of the canonical tradition, but it is also a scathing attack on that very tradition." In Kelley's group, the discussion focused on the play's literary aspects and on several abstract religious ideas until she brought up parallels to modern issues. She said although administrators provided study questions for professors, she felt no pressure to address a specific agenda. "It was clear that we could do what we wanted with the discussion," she said. Opinions of the play varied among a group of freshmen hanging out in a dorm room earlier this week. Although several had not read it or read it at the last minute, most thought the play was a fair assignment. College freshman Eileen Everly said she was used to summer reading assignments from high school and felt Bacchae was neither too long nor too difficult. "I got the book in July and I decided, 'I like this book,' " said Everly, who highlighted her copy and took reading notes. "I thought the idea of discussing it in small groups was a good way to make it not intimidating." Other students were less enthusiastic, saying they did not like Greek plays or that the play was too gory. The students commented on Bacchae's relevance to modern times, and the play sparked a discussion of sexism which culminated in Everly reading a dramatic condemnation of male violence. Several professors said they were pleasantly surprised by the number of students who came to the sessions and by the quality of their participation. In Kelley's section, for example, only one student skipped the section, and of the 15 who attended, about ten participated in the discussion. The sessions were mandatory, and students were given an additional incentive for attending: the dining commons barred them from lunch service, but bag lunches were provided at the sessions. Faculty also reacted enthusiastically to the play. The 140 professors who volunteered to lead discussions came from across the University, including the Medical and Engineering schools. Faculty attended training sessions for discussion leaders last week, dissected their views on the play, and shared teaching tips with those unaccustomed to instructing undergraduates, but some also gathered over the summer to chat about it informally. Pharmacology Chairperson Perry Molinoff, for example, invited several members of his department to discuss the play with his wife, who has a doctorate degree in English.

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