Last week in First-Year Experience mentor training, we learned that the first-year common read would be “Frankenstein,” the 1818 English novel by Mary Shelley. I am the Comparative Literature department mentor; if there were to be only one person in this school excited about the incoming first-year class reading this novel, it would be me. In fact, shoot me an email or find me in the library or something and I would—genuinely—enjoy talking to you about “Frankenstein,” or really anything else about gothic literature.
Maybe that conversation is something that should happen every now and then, but that should never happen in a mid-August afternoon in Armstrong, nor should Frankenstein be any—let alone all—of next year’s new students’ introduction to Colorado College. People are writing too much about what’s happening right now to look 200 years in the past for much-needed answers to our skewed social and political systems.
For the past three years and since I was a first-year, the school has engaged in discussions of race, gender, mass incarceration, learning disabilities, stereotype threat, the power of poems, social justice, and privilege. Previous common read books include two contemporary non-fiction texts and one photo and poetry collection, all written by authors of color, that bring to light questions and values the school hopes to instill in its students. I still reference my required read as a first-year, “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson—as well as his orientation address—in conversations surrounding social justice in our local and national communities.
As the college’s acceptance rate has dropped in every recent year and standards for admission become more competitive, I think it is safe to say that most of the class of 2022 will be nothing less than well-read and academically inclined. As the FYE program continues to improve, students will become even savvier in how to critically read and write, and continue to further hone those skills in their remaining 30 blocks here.
There will be time for “Frankenstein.” There is not time, however, to introduce new students to the standard of tolerance, progressivism, and social awareness—one may go so far to say “sense of place”—that the college claims to value so much. We have the power to make the class of 2022 better at having the important conversations with which our current campus engages. I do not want two more years to pass again, only for overt instances of extreme racism to threaten students of color. I do not want another day to pass where marginalized students feel as though they are underrepresented both in the classroom and in everyday discourse.
If we truly have faith that we can foster a more tolerant—specifically white—student body that engages in meaningful conversation about systemic racism, privilege on CC’s campus, and how minorities experience micro-aggressions daily, we must assign books that hold us accountable. We must do the work that is required of us.
I cannot wait to explain to my mentees this fall why I study literature, and how seemingly dated novels and plays have affected their lives without them knowing. I can wait, however, to discuss Mary Shelley in a sticky August basement classroom when there are years of hateful, racist rhetoric that have yet to leave our campus. I have faith that we can be better, even if I will not be at CC to see this place develop into a space that students of color deserve to occupy. I see the school’s choice to assign “Frankenstein” to the incoming class as a way of giving up and passing on the opportunity to continue the trend of socially relevant conversations during New Student Orientation week and beyond.
Who are we to think we are better than the violent rhetoric that seeps into every space on this campus? I do not believe it is too late for CC to retract to “Frankenstein” as the common read. To any person of power reading this, my suggestions for the novel’s replacement are listed at the end of this article.
We are better than separating academia from the reality that exists outside of Tutt Library, or Olin Science, or Armstrong Hall. The conversation is never over, even if we never receive a hateful email again, or students and professors of all races, ethnicities, and genders find their way into every classroom.
I will still read “Frankenstein” this summer in the comfy chairs in the back of an air-conditioned The Wild Goose Meeting House. I will also enjoy it. I will have a hard time, however, pretending like it means something to me upon my re-entry into campus. I’ll be excited when I discuss the book anyway, partly because I’d like to in another context and partly because it’s my job. It’s also part of my job to give them real insight on what’s happening right now, and they’re more than welcome to check out my bookshelf anytime.