The term “freshman year” has the tendency to elicit the response of a sort of pained laugh. This occurs not only for current university students, but also for anyone who attended their first year of college. The phrase has become a subject of suppressed memory, and apparently, even hysteria. Because of this expression’s association with crippling discomfiture and inexperience, an entire year’s worth of recollection eventually becomes horrendously funny. If there were any appropriate motto to subscribe to when entering University, it would be to just laugh through the grief- nervous, restrained laughter.
And of course, Stony Brook University likes to dab salt in the wound that is freshman year by assigning a “First-Year Reading” to all incoming students. The “First-Year Reading” is an annual book selected for the incoming freshman class to read as a collective student body. The novel’s theme and overlying message is expected to be a topic of conversation throughout the rest of the school year. The tradition, which apparently dates back to the year 2001, was created for the sole purpose of consolidating the undergraduate student body and creating an enriching freshman experience.
Naturally, every freshman student abhors this assignment.
The chosen novel of this year, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman, drove virtually every first-year to complaint and protest. Oddly enough, this is not entirely due to the book’s content. From what I have gathered, an array of students found the book to be enthralling and generally a good read. Others voiced it to be tedious dross, and most of the student body has yet to complete the first chapter. Apparently, this has become a patterned phenomenon for every incoming freshman class since time immemorial (still 2001- which, if you give it some thought, is truly ancient). I even asked my sophomore suitemates about their “First-Year Reading,” and a unified grouse permeated the room, which was then accompanied by jocular quibble over which part of their Commons Day was truly the most painful.
Words I’ll never forget hearing upon my first stay here: The subject of the First-Year Reading was announced during orientation. When asked what that was, my “fellow” tour guide described it as an ailment of the Stony Brook freshman body (I knew I had picked the right school).
Even so, a low murmuring whinge persisted during Commons Day last week- also known as our “Conversation With The Author.” Needless to say, the event was compulsory for the entire freshman class- resulting in an impacted program, so much so that much of the freshman class was flocked to the SAC Auditorium for an alternative live viewing of Anne Fadiman’s speech. The presentation bordered on two hours, and had even prompted a few students to attempt a great escape, though most were caught and simply told to go back to their seats. Despite these ventures, her lecture was surprisingly charming- and she even seemed genuinely interested in speaking with us after the program.
“I am grateful for your sacrifice,” she expressed (though not wildly essential to her speech, I’m sure it pacified those few remaining students still embittered from the summer assignment). Anne Fadiman’s lecture largely consisted of her impressions in personal growth and the idea of becoming a ‘cultured Stony Brook student.’ She polished off her talk with a few parting maxims, such as “Life is full of surprises” and “love chooses you.”
As pleasant as this all turned out to be, it still does not hide the fact that every freshman has felt disdain for this project in some way or another. And yet, the mere mention of the “First-year Reading” evoked a lively conversation within my suite- everyone lamenting and bemoaning, but most importantly, laughing.
The Undergraduate College Advisory provided this bold objective of the First-Year Reading in their “Author Visit” webpage: “Over the course of the fall semester, we engage in a dialogue about the book. Through a variety of events and activities, including a visit by the author on Undergraduate College Commons Day, incoming freshmen have the opportunity to explore this book with their peers, instructors, and the broader campus community.” And what a dialogue it has been! One filled with expletives, aggravation and even allusions to malady.
Perhaps it’s the fact that this project embodies so much of what a freshman year is known for: forced experiences with people whom initially seem distasteful, yet a result of enjoying yourself despite everything else. Like being stranded on a deserted island, it’s possible to grow closer to the people around you just by sharing a common experience: misfortune. Perhaps the assignment that is “The First-Year Reading”, in a way, achieves its objective. What better way to unite the student body than through grievance?
The Stony Brook freshman class is, remarkably, unified through speaking a common dialogue- one rife with complaint. This is usually how friendships are formed- through shared dislike! It’s better to carp together than alone, and usually some sort of consensus is needed for distrusting something. The pain of freshman year has only begun- we’re going to need something to laugh at.