Brandeis’s 30th Book Forum: “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness”
Every year, a book forum is held for Brandeis' first-years. A book is chosen by the school, and sent to incoming first-years. It is supposed to be an intellectually stimulating book which the entire class can analyze and connect to. The forum includes receiving the book, reading the book and finally discussing the book in classrooms on campus with other first-years during orientation. On the University’s website, the event is described as “the first of many experiences that will begin to build your community and a sense of belonging at Brandeis. The forum is the only time your entire class will have a shared academic experience, reading the same book, and bringing you together for a meaningful connection with your peers and members of our outstanding faculty. This special experience is the beginning of creating a unifying connection that will last for years to come.”
This year’s book was “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness” by Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor at the School of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney. The book is about the intelligence and behavior of octopi, and comparing their brains and the brains of cuttlefish to those of mammals and birds. Previous books read in this forum, between 2010 and 2020, include: "Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions" by Valeria Luiselli, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain, "Citizen: An American Lyric" by Claudia Rankine and "Housekeeping" by Marilynne Robinson, none of which seem particularly exciting or engaging as a first introduction to college life. Since other orientation activities are exciting and joyous, the book forum should fit in with this narrative.
My experience with the first-year book forum was much different than the “shared meaningful experience” advertised on the Brandeis site. The book assigned to my class was "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain, a dark comedy about a soldier who was sent on a PR tour with some of his compatriots right after he had engaged in an intense firefight which had been caught on camera. The whole book is about him trying to cope with the differences between reality and the reality created by the PR team. Half of the people I talked to both during and after the event didn't read it. A couple skimmed through it like I did to get through the forum, and a very small number of people I met actually read the book in detail. Personally, I skimmed through the book so I would be able to carry on some kind of conversation. I would have read more, but I was busy moving all the way across the country. The forum I went to kicked off by asking us if we remembered 9/11, and when we said that we had all been one year old at the time of the tragedy, the coordinator seemed shocked. We ended up just having a casual conversation about the military afterwards, and we barely talked about the book — certainly not in any of the detail that I had expected.
The majority of people from my year felt like the book we were assigned had been meaningless. Ever since, when the forum was brought up in conversations, it became a kind of meme: “Oh, do you still have that book from freshman year?”
“Yeah I think it's still where I threw it in my closet after orientation.”
I thought that it could justly have been only my class that reacted badly to the forum, so I wanted to get opinions from first-years on how this year's forum went, and I found it very difficult. I asked two friends: one, an Orientation Leader who said she didn’t know anyone who could help me, and two, a Roosevelt Fellow who later told me that of the two people he talked to, one of them didn’t attend the event and the other said they wouldn’t be a good candidate for an interview. I then took it upon myself to ask around, and fortunately a first-year student stopped to ask for directions, so I asked her if she had been to the forum. She said that when she had opened the box from Brandeis, she had been looking forward to receiving Brandeis merch, but then there was a book and she was disappointed. Not only was the book not directly Brandeis related, but she also picked it up and read a page or two, finding it incredibly boring. She said that most of her friends had also not touched the book and therefore avoided the forum. Responses from other students I talked to included that they thought the book looked boring so they never read it or that they didn’t have time to read the book, because they were packing up and then traveling and moving in, or finally, they read it and went to the event, but they didn’t enjoy it or find it useful. None of these sound like responses that the school would want first-years to have for an event they advertise as being extremely influential and important.
This is how the importance of the Brandeis Book Forum is described on their official website: “The highlight of this experience is that the community of scholars comprising your entering class and the Faculty Ambassadors, participates in a discussion together with the author during New Student Orientation.” This is what incoming students expect and this is what incoming students should receive.
I love books. I love reading. I love engaging with interesting ideas and connecting with the community of scholars in my class. I am all for an event like this to take place for first-year students. However, I don’t believe that the way the event is currently organized is valuable in the way Brandeis wants or believes it to be. I did end up coming up with a few potential ideas for how the event could be changed for the better, so that it can become the community building event that Brandeis intends for it to be. Perhaps the school could choose books that are either related to current issues that affect students, a shorter book or, at the very least, an interesting book that someone would want to read and talk about. Difficult books involving niche topics are not inclusive or digestible for the average student. Perhaps there should be a more concrete incentive to read it. Why should a first-year take time out of their already busy schedule — in the middle of orientation and unpacking — to read a book and then talk about it when it is not required and they are not being graded on it? A major concern is the time frame in which this forum takes place. Orientation is packed with presentations, information and confusion. The book forum blends into orientation as just another event first-years have to go to. It is not special or memorable. Perhaps the forum should be moved to later in the year after everyone is moved in and settled. Maybe it could be done jointly with midyears in the second semester, giving everyone a chance to read it and think about it, while also integrating midyears into the class’s community.
Orientation is already an incredibly chaotic experience with a lot of events that include meeting people and trying new things. If the University wants the forum to be as meaningful as the website claims it is, perhaps the incoming class should be able to have more time to read the book. In addition, the book should be more digestible, and the event should be held at a time when new students are not overloaded with other orientation events.