First Engagements Finally Discusses Fiction

by Holly Brown

The First Engagements program has quickly become a tradition among the Transylvania community, but this year tradition was given a new face when students and staff met to discuss the program’s first fiction selection, “A World Lost” by Wendell Berry.

Previous selections for the First Engagements discussion have all been nonfiction: “Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty”; “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” which focuses on health care reform in Haiti; and “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” which addresses sustainable living.

The three candidates for this year’s discussion were “The Blind Side” by Michael Lewis, “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin and Berry’s “A World Lost.” Of these three finalists, the selection committee decided that “A World Lost” would be most relatable to students.

Michael Covert, the associate dean of students and a director of the program, strongly supported the committee’s decision.

“[Berry is] a Kentucky author. … We have a lot of students who are from Kentucky, who grew up in rural Kentucky,” said Covert.

While the book was selected due to its relatable nature, its style is fundamentally different from the program’s previous selections. It focuses discussion on the attributes of the text itself rather than a broader social issue. This difference proved to be both a joy and challenge among those participating in discussions.

Professor of philosophy Dr. Jack Furlong mentioned the challenges that he experienced when discussing the book.

“Discussing a work of fiction may seem easier than tackling a nonfiction book, but it’s more difficult pedagogically,” he said. “If you are the discussion leader, it falls to you to avoid ways in which students seem to have been taught to address fiction in their previous academic careers.”

“I think we all had a lot more choices (and) opportunities as to what topic the discussion should be on, because it was not dealing with one specific issue,” commented junior Mindy Borie, another discussion leader. “In some ways this made it harder because there was more work for us to do, but also gave the students a little more leeway with what to do and say.”

Conversely, there were also those who felt that the genre difference had little impact on the discussion.

As music professor Dr. Greg Partain asserted, “You’ve asked how this year’s First Engagements discussion differed, given that ‘A World Lost’ was a work of fiction. In an important sense, I saw no difference at all, because whether ‘fictional’ or not, a book this vivid creates its own reality and speaks to universal themes.”


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