For the past 10 years, incoming Penn freshmen have taken part in a "shared intellectual experience" during New Student Orientation -- the Penn Reading Project. During the summer, the entire freshman class reads one book selected by faculty. It's students' first exposure to academic life at Penn, but it is as much as anything else a lesson on the University's values. Professors also present lectures on the book, and book discussions are led by deans, faculty fellows and graduate associates in the college houses. This year's selection was Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, a story about a young man, Gregor Samsa, who awakens one day finding himself transformed into a "monstrous vermin" -- a beetle. As a GA in DuBois College House, I was the organizer for one of the discussion groups. This was my first time participating in the Penn Reading Project, and I was initially skeptical of the whole idea. I did not like the idea of giving incoming students an extra academic assignment right before they start rigorous college courses for the first time. I was pretty sure that most incoming freshmen had figured out that they could skip "mandatory" activities like the Penn Reading Project without any penalty. Also, I was dismayed by the fact that project organizers chose yet another white author to read for this year. In its 10 year history, the Penn Reading Project has included only two works by authors of color -- Frederick Douglass' Narrative and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. While this may seem like significant representation to many -- a sign that the University has embraced the language of diversity -- for some reason it did not seem adequate to me. The first of my concerns was largely unwarranted. Students not only came -- they also engaged in a lively discussion. My group dissected Kafka's work from every angle, noting comments on the author cited in the faculty lectures and drawing their own interpretations. We drew analogies between The Metamorphosis and the students' own transitions to college life. We looked at Kafka's work as a critique of capitalism, discussing how Gregor's burden of labor had transformed both him and his family. Some strongly disagreed with these interpretations, while others saw Kafka's story as a symbolic portrait of oppression. Indeed, Gregor's suffering reminded me of W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk, where DuBois asks, "Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?" And as I compared Kafka and DuBois, it dawned on me exactly why my second concern -- inadequate attention to authors of color -- was warranted. Kafka's Metamorphosis is rightly viewed as a work with universal appeal, transcending time and place. Gregor's plight is applicable in some form to people all over the world, and Metamorphosis is respected as such. The works of many great European authors are viewed in this light. In contrast, works by authors of color are rarely said to have this universal appeal. When DuBois writes about "double-consciousness" -- the sense of being the other and being judged by others -- people say that he is describing the experiences of blacks in America. This being true, we should look deeper to see what DuBois says about our own lives -- even those of us who are not black. Also, while the Penn Reading Project has included two authors of color, it has not incorporated works from outside Europe and America. Again, classical European works are thought to have universal appeal; their lessons supposedly apply to everyone. However, works like the ancient South Asian epic, the Mahbharata, and Chinua Achebe's classic African novel, Things Fall Apart, also explore universal human qualities no less than The Metamorphosis or Euripides' The Bacchae -- a Greek tragedy used for the first Penn Reading Project in 1991. One must ask why non-Western works are not respected in the same way as European classics. Contrary to my initial skepticism, I do believe that the Penn Reading Project is an important and worthwhile endeavor, and I hope to participate in it again. But I also think that more attention needs to be paid to authors of color -- and particularly international authors -- when selecting texts for reading. And this is not just a matter of representation -- it is a matter of respect. The University has come to recognize that students of color should have the opportunity to read authors who share their experiences, and that white students benefit by learning about other cultures and people. However, the University should also realize that white students will not only learn about others by reading authors of color; they can also learn about themselves.Comments powered by Disqus
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