Johns Hopkins University
Fall/Winter 2007
Vol. 5, No. 1


A Conversation with Matthew Crenson '63

A New Kind of Pre-Med

> Freshman Book Discussion Yields Rich Insights

[Tech Tools] Museum World Tour 2007

[Tech Tools] A Melding of the Muses

[Classroom Encounters] Mass Media's Messages

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Freshman Book Discussion
Yields Rich Insights

Book Discussion photo
Tatum in Shriver Hall.

It may not have the reach of Oprah's book club, but a new shared reading initiative launched this summer at Homewood helped bring together freshmen and foster community in a big way.

The Office of Student Life at Homewood asked the freshman class and the entire Johns Hopkins community to read Beverly Daniel Tatum's Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Dorothy Sheppard, associate dean for student life, says the book was a deliberate choice in the wake of last fall's incident involving a racially and culturally offensive invitation to a fraternity Halloween party. "What happened last fall left some folks here shattered and brought a lot of these issues of race to the surface," she says.

Tatum's 1997 book, now in its fifth edition, offers perspective on racial identity development and examines the unique circumstances and experiences of African-Americans, Latinos, American Indians, Asians, and biracial youth.

One afternoon during freshman orientation week, faculty, staff, and administrators facilitated 33 simultaneous book discussions throughout student residence halls. Even if students hadn't read the book, the subject matter was such that they could still join in the conversation.

And they did. Freshmen shared their own experiences-growing up in a small town in southern Maine where people of color were few and far between; dealing with prejudices of light-skinned African-Americans against darker-skinned classmates; trying to downplay one's "Asianness" to fit into a high school, only to be called "Twinkie" by the few Asian-American students. They talked of their anxieties and excitement about joining a diverse Hopkins community, and offered suggestions for talking about race, creating an inclusive environment, and embracing diversity. "Drop our assumptions about people," one said.

"Push our own comfort boundaries," suggested another. "We all came here not knowing anyone. Who did you gravitate toward?"

Dean of Undergraduate Education Paula Burger, who facilitated one of the discussions in Wolman Hall, made note of the "extraordinary richness of diversity among the people in this room," adding, "It strikes me that this would be a very denuded place without the richness you all represent."

Sheppard estimates about 80 percent of the freshman class participated in the discussions, and a couple hundred showed up in Shriver Hall a week later to hear Tatum herself, who took a break from her presidency of Spelman College to "stimulate dialogue" at Hopkins. Tatum optimistically advised attendees to focus on "the people who are interested in the conversation," rather than those who aren't-namely people who didn't attend but maybe should have. Isn't that just preaching to the choir, one might ask? "The choir needs rehearsal," she said. "When the choir sings well, it inspires others to want to join the choir."