By Michele Dobbins
The combination of coffee, an outdoor amphitheater, and eager students led to a vibrant program called Read on Elon at Elon University. Its early beginnings formed four years ago when students and faculty gathered to pursue challenging intellectual discussions outside the classroom by reading and discussing books together. This academic year marks a new format; rather than a few individuals brainstorming the list of titles on their own, now faculty, staff, and students throughout the entire university can submit book proposals for evaluation by a faculty committee.
“Our goal was to support intellectual conversations outside of the classroom, and to extend Phi Beta Kappa’s engagement with excellence in the liberal arts and sciences to a larger population of Elon community members,” Elon ΦBK President Olivia Choplin wrote in an email about her chapter’s decision to sponsor Read on Elon.
Three professors from different disciplines formed the committee that evaluated the proposals for this academic year. They selected six books from across the spectrum of arts and sciences, and the Eta of North Carolina Chapter at Elon purchased $1,154.90 worth of copies for participants to read. Books ranged from Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty to Tony Medina’s Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky.
“One thing that we were pretty clear on in the call for proposals was that we wanted books that spoke to Phi Beta Kappa’s liberal arts mission,” committee member and Political Science Professor Jason Kirk said about the selection process. He elaborated that the most effective proposals were ones that offered enough “rigor” to be challenging but could also be “accessible” to everyone in attendance.
Several discussions have taken place so far and have drawn a small but dedicated group. The events are designed to be informal, allowing the interests of the attendees to lead the conversation.
After attending the most recent event, Kirk describes the discussions as “really high-quality. Everybody there wants to be there and is motivated to talk about the particular book. It’s been very rewarding for me.”
One of the students contributing to the program’s success is sophomore Lindsay Maldari, who teamed up with faculty member Evan Gatti to coordinate the discussion of her proposed book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by Jane Bennett. Read on Elon first attracted Maldari because of its “interdisciplinary nature.”
“I viewed these book talks as an opportunity to have intellectual discussions with people that I don’t usually see in the classes within my discipline. More than anything, Read on Elon has been a unique opportunity to expand my own understanding of the perspectives people have from different majors and departments,” Maldari wrote in an email.
Bennett’s Vibrant Matter became the perfect platform for this type of intellectual connection due to its wide-reaching subject matter. Drawing on her double major in art history and political science, Maldari chose the book because it combined her interests with other topics such as environmental studies and philosophy.
Because of the small group size and flexible agenda, the meetings offer a unique chance for students to dig more deeply into a book’s content. Both Kirk and Maldari agree that students leave the event having more thoroughly grasped the complex arguments put forth by books like Bennett’s.
Maldari also believes that these programs are vital for undergraduates.
“Book discussions represent a unique opportunity to become more well-rounded in one’s understanding not only of current events and topics themselves, but also of how people with different interests and perspectives view these same events as well,” she wrote.
The ability to form these connections across the liberal arts and sciences make Read on Elon an ideal program to find its home with ΦBK. As Kirk points out, the name of the program itself emphasizes this link. While on one hand, “read on” encourages students to “keep reading” and “read beyond the classroom,” it also communicates that Elon’s ΦBK chapter values its role in the program, believing that “it’s on us” to invest in students willing to pursue interdisciplinary excellence.
Michele Dobbins is a senior at University of Arkansas majoring in English. University of Arkansas is home to the Alpha of Arkansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.