There they were, 15 of the best and brightest America and the world had to offer, sitting around a table in Kings Court/English College House waiting for their discussion leader to give them their first taste of academic life at an elite Ivy League university.
They had read the book sent to them in mid-summer with the expectation that it would lead to a shared intellectual experience that would stay with them all year.
And I was the person who was supposed to give them that experience.
Why was I doing this? It’s not because I have the academic background for it—I neither hold a graduate degree nor studied literature in college. But that didn’t matter to the Penn Reading Project (PRP) organizers. All that mattered was that I, like the 145 other faculty and staff members who led PRP discussion sections Sept. 4, had some familiarity with academic discussion and had expressed an interest in discussing Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart.”
To help us in that task, three professors—Sandra Barnes of anthropology, Jim English of English and Lydie Moudileno of Romance languages—talked about the book as literature, the society it depicts, the historical events that are captured in it and some ways to think about it in a one-hour prep session before we met with our students. Not all of the discussion leaders were present—university presidents and school deans are very busy at the start of the year—but most were. And while most were also faculty, a sizable minority—about 35, according to New Student Orientation Director David Fox—were staff, mostly from the College Houses.
The incoming freshmen had been given some questions to think about on the PRP Web site prior to the discussion. A morning lecture put the book in the context of Europe’s late-19th-century “scramble for Africa” and discussed the social organization of traditional Ibo society.
Tara Mendola, a young woman from Alabama, had something to say on this last subject in my discussion group. No, this wasn’t a primitive society—it had well-developed institutions, a functioning economy and a fairly democratic governing process, all of which Achebe describes in detail in the course of the first two-thirds of the book.
In fact, Tara had a lot to say about the book and about understanding other cultures. I could have turned the steering of the discussion over to her, but it was my job to get as many of the students as possible to contribute.
I signed up to lead a section because I was familiar with the book, having read it in high school. So had about a third of the students in my section. The ones who had, however, did not participate in the discussion any more or any less than those who had not.
As it turned out, about five or six students did the bulk of the talking, three or four others made occasional contributions, and the remaining third kept quiet. This, I was assured afterwards, was par for the course in small-group discussions. You toss out your questions, prod some people for contributions, and see how the students run with the material they’ve been given.
There had been some grousing about political correctness the last time the PRP picked a book by a black author—“The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” in 1992, its second year—and, Fox told me, there were similar grumblings when Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Woman Warrior” was chosen in 1998. No such complaints surfaced this year, he said, which is testimony to the power of Achebe’s narrative.
After the discussion ended, two of the students—Muchemi Wandimi, from Kenya, the one African in the group, and Way Tsui, from Singapore—talked with me some more about the book and Africa. They said they enjoyed the discussion. So did I. I might even try this again next fall. But I don’t think I’d want to do this for a living. That job I gladly leave to the faculty, who are much better at it anyway.
For study questions and library resources on “Things Fall Apart,” go to www.upenn.edu/nso/prp.
Originally published on October 3, 2002