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Old 08-22-2013, 08:54 AM
Location: Cincinnati near
2,509 posts, read 3,357,650 times
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I am a science professor at a university with a strong liberal arts tradition. This year I volunteered to lead one of the discussion groups for the first year student orientation common reading experience. The book we read and will be discussing is "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and there are around 20 students in my group. I didn't have any trouble reading and understanding the book, or in grading the student essays and providing feedback.

However, I am a bit nervous about the discussion groups. The subject matter of the book was somewhat controversial, with some racial themes, strong language, political controversy, and other 'good' stuff. I am just not sure how I should treat a group of incoming first year students knowing that this is the first academic college experience that they will have.

Part of me wants to take them firmly out of their comfort zone, but I am afraid that I might not be able to pull it off, especially because I am, like the apparent bad guys in the novel, a doctorate holding white biochemist from a solidly middle class background. About 90% of the student essays were incredibly critical of the scientists and sympathetic to the title character, and I really want the students to recognize the nuances of the ethics involved rather than simply picking a side and arguing on their behalf.

Any suggestions? Has anyone else used this particular book in their class?
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Old 08-22-2013, 09:49 AM
Location: My beloved Bluegrass
14,084 posts, read 9,812,198 times
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It is a good book and well suited for a hard science guy.

If you are going to insist on taking students out of their comfort zone make sure you are aware you may upset students and be prepared to deescalate the situation. More importantly, you need to be willing take ownership if a student reacts negatively to having their values, morals, and belief systems questioned. Please make sure you don't allow other students to gang up on a student who holds differing views, even if you agree with the larger group. Also, realize that some of them may try to push you out of your comfort zone, and you must be scrupulous about not reacting to that or taking that personally. Too many professors who say they want to challenge students and take them out of their comfort zone are looking to have students change their veiws and values to agree with the professor's take on the subject. These are freshman, whatever you do, don't make this so uncomfortable that you turn some kid off higher ed. If you have a kid who stops coming, especially after a particularly dicey conversation you need to contact them to make sure they aren't so upset they have decided to quit attending.

Oh yeah - be prepared for the opposite reaction, apathy.
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