Creating a Novel Experience

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

January 12, 2012

Sometimes, in the world of small colleges, there are unexpected advantages of scale—especially when a shared experience is the goal. But it takes imagination to exploit that sort of edge. Take Wofford College's freshman-book program.

Nearly a decade ago, the college decided to add such a program for its roughly 400 incoming students, something many other colleges had already done. At the time, Wofford had in me a relatively new president who, in addition to a previous appointment as a humanities professor, had taught creative writing. I wanted to be creative with this project, too, so I turned initially to two literary-minded colleagues and asked them to come up with something truly novel.

As fiction writers themselves, they jointly seized on the word "novel," arguing that, to captivate its readers and stimulate their imaginations, the Wofford freshman book should always be a work of fiction. To lock that preference in, they proposed that the program should be called "The Novel Experience" and, furthermore, that each selected work should have earned a major accolade such as the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award. Finally, they stipulated that the novel must be by a living author willing to visit the Wofford campus early in the fall semester.

When I cautioned them that famous authors might require hefty speakers' fees, the professors replied, "Not if our program is uniquely enticing."

And what would make it uniquely enticing?

To answer that question, they decided to consult the 26 instructors of a required freshman humanities course, proposing that they should choose the book each year and asking how they might want to integrate its discussion into their differing syllabi. After much debate, here is what they proposed:

Each fall, in the first week of our new academic year, all first-year students would gather with their instructors and peer counselors for a high-spirited early-evening event in the college's main auditorium, which would be festooned with balloons and colorful placards specifying the seating for each humanities section. The festivities would be presided over by junior and senior student leaders who would have a gigantic Wheel of Fortune on stage with the names of local restaurants emblazoned on the wheel. One by one, accompanied by a drumroll and applause, a student representative from each humanities section would be summoned to the stage to give the wheel a spin, determining where that section would eat its dinner—at the college's expense. The list of restaurants would include the best in town, along with several (decoys only) that were not among the best, assuring great excitement and amusement over the outcomes.

Once every section had a destination, the crowd would disperse to a flotilla of cars headed to several dozen restaurants, introducing gown to town in a way that would provide many students with their first experience of the city, and many restauranteurs with their first shot at building long-lasting customer relations. In special dining areas and with special prices for the college, students and professors would break bread together, holding vigorous discussions about the novel they would all have read in common—specifically, about a central question that all the instructors would have agreed upon. At the end of the evening, that question would define the subject of a short written assignment to be given to each student for his or her upcoming class.

In The Novel Experience's first year, the selected work was Charles Johnson's award-winning Middle Passage. Using the name of the story's central character, the assigned essay topic was "I am Rutherford Calhoun" or "I am not Rutherford Calhoun." Given the fact that Rutherford Calhoun is a freed slave in antebellum New Orleans, who in order to abscond from an amorous entanglement stows away unwittingly on what turns out to be a slave ship, the topic was very challenging. But the instructors quickly culled the eight most perceptive and provocative essays from among those submitted and rushed them into a professionally designed publication.

The booklet's opening page contained a photograph of Charles Johnson and a short biographical sketch followed by critical comments about his work. In precisely the same format, subsequent pages featured a photograph and short bio of each prize-winning student essayist followed by the full text of his or her essay. What we were doing, of course, was identifying the first superstars of our incoming class based on their literary and scholarly achievement.

And superstardom it was—because several days later, when Charles Johnson himself arrived for a special convocation, the entire faculty and student body were in attendance, receiving, as they arrived, a copy of The Novel Experience publication. When Charles Johnson addressed the audience, he used as his points of departure comments from each of the essays, identifying the authors by name and agreeing or disagreeing with what they had said—even in some cases noting that, though it had never occurred to him in the course of writing his novel, he thought they were absolutely right in what they had asserted. As he made his comments, everyone in the audience could turn to the essay in question and leave with the conviction that reading each in its entirety would be well worth one's time.

The convocation was followed by a special luncheon attended by professors and administrators aplenty. But the central table had only nine chairs—for Charles Johnson and the eight freshman essayists who, judging from their expressions, were in a place they had never been before, but which they knew how to find again. I was assured by Johnson that the whole experience had been as gratifying for him as it was for the rest of us.

When we had first approached him about visiting Wofford, Johnson had hesitated. But after we described the program to him, he quickly accepted. The professors who developed the course were right in their prediction, and the attraction of the program has been reconfirmed each fall by the noted authors whose works have been selected.

The opening-night hoopla has varied a little year by year, but the essential components have remained the same for nearly a decade, and the only real difficulty we've encountered occurred in the aftermath of that first occasion—when a group of seniors complained that, having been deprived of a freshman book of their own, they felt entitled to a senior-book experience. The seniors felt it should center around a work of nonfiction about the world they were about to enter, written by an author as acclaimed as Charles Johnson. David Brooks readily agreed to visit Wofford to talk about Bobos in Paradise, and that too was a huge success.

Sometimes the advantage of scale can make a difference. Logistically and financially, The Novel Experience would be impossible if our incoming class was a great deal larger. But the real difference-maker is creativity: The very thing we want most to encourage at the outset of our students' careers at Wofford.

It also helps to have several dozen good places to eat within easy driving distance and an appetite for learning.

Benjamin B. Dunlap is president of Wofford College.