As the class of 2015 prepared for its first semester as college students, the undergrads had more in common than just their freshman status. All first-year students shared a cross-major reading of Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw: and other adventures as part of a new common reading program at Oglethorpe.
“Several colleges and universities have established common reading programs over the years,” explained Kendra Hunter, director of student leadership and activities. “By introducing this program at Oglethorpe, Campus Life wanted to incorporate an academic component to New Student Orientation that would create a common experience for new students to begin the development of community among them as well as help prepare them for the academic and intellectual experiences they will have.”
Far from the ordinary textbook, What the Dog Saw is a compilation of 19 features written by the Canadian journalist, all of which were first published in The New Yorker magazine. In this collection, Gladwell explores the “back story” of society’s everyday stories, and makes an effort to find a larger meaning in them. The book is divided into three parts which examine: “minor geniuses” (those who find ways to do ordinary things in extraordinary ways); the theories or ways of organizing experience (such as the controversial program found in some big U.S. cities designed to tackle the problem of homelessness by giving the chronically homeless their own apartments, while less severe cases stay on the streets); and lastly, the assumptions and predictions we make about people (“How do we know whether someone is bad, or smart, or capable of doing something really well?”).
“Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade,” says Gladwell in the book’s preface. “It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.”
Indeed, Gladwell’s book was selected with the input of first-year instructors for its direct connection to first-year curriculum and its potential to encourage debate and real-life application.
“What the Dog Saw is composed of essays and themes which appeal to a variety of students and can be connected to multiple disciplines,” said Hunter. “Resulting discussions ranged from their thoughts about the book to having a ‘pitching’ contest in which students took an ordinary object and pitched new and unusual uses for it. Currently, we are looking into visiting a homeless shelter and then discussing or debating the ideas from one of the essays, ‘Million Dollar Murray.’”
Throughout the year, students and faculty have found other ways to incorporate the book’s theme, turning what started as a summer reading assignment into a year-long intellectual discussion about the importance of perspective. Hunter said that three freshman classes took a trip to Dialog in the Dark, an exhibition that forces guests to “see” through the eyes of the visually impaired, using a series of darkened galleries created to replicate everyday experiences. “During that trip students gained a different perspective on everyday life with a visual impairment, encouraging them to be open to ideas and viewpoints other than their own,” explained Hunter.
Not surprisingly, others at OU have found ways to adapt the book as well. The OU Theatre department has plans to modify it for the stage. To be created and performed by students, the play will be presented exclusively at Oglethorpe by special permission of the author on April 12-14, 2012.
“What the Dog Saw encourages its readers to think counter-intuitively and to question experiences and the assumptions they make,” said Hunter. “This is exactly what we want our students to do; critical thinking is such a large part of their education and individual development.”
This article first appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Oglethorpe’s Carillon magazine.