This fall when first-year students arrive at American University, they will already have something in common. It's the book We Gon' Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang, and it's their required summer reading assignment.
The book is a critically acclaimed collection of essays on race and diversity in the contemporary United States. The Washington Post called it "the smartest book of the year." A starred Kirkus review says it's "a compelling and intellectually thought-provoking exploration of the quagmire of race relations." Its author is journalist and American Book Award winner Jeff Chang, who has written extensively on culture, politics, the arts, and music. He is currently the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in Arts at Stanford University.
A Community Text
Each year, American University's Writer as Witness committee chooses one "community text" that they have deemed important and timely. This year, the committee gravitated toward options that would raise issues of race in America and model ways of thinking and talking about these issues, according to committee chair and Department of Literature Senior Professorial Lecturer Adam Tamashasky.
"America, generally, and AU clearly need to engage in open, explicit, and difficult conversations about racism's persistent place in our history and our current events," he explains. "Jeff Chang's collection of essays will help set a tone of intellectual courage, curiosity, and complexity as a new cohort of AU students arrives to begin their collegiate experience."
When students arrive at AU this fall, they will discuss the book and write about it in their College Writing classes. They can enter an essay contest honoring the best writing inspired by the book. And they can also see Chang in person, as he visits campus for the twentieth annual Writer as Witness Colloquium on Wednesday, September 6. Chang will address the AU community and meet with students and faculty to discuss the book, as well as the craft, artistry, and research that went into its creation.
A Shared Experience
"The Writer as Witness text provides intellectual commonality for the first-year students," says Lacey Wootton, Hurst Senior Professorial Lecturer and director of AU's Writing Studies Program. "They come in with some things in common—they are, for the most part, new to college; they're close to each other in age; they're bright and engaged—and with a number of differences, too. The Writer as Witness book provides a bonding experience—one that should allow them to bond over words, ideas, and arguments—and thus bond as incipient scholars and writers."
Wootton says that when the students work with the book in their writing courses and come together as a class to hear the author, their understanding of the issues in the text will deepen. The goal is to get new students to ask tough questions, explore controversy, listen respectfully, and sharpen their claims. In doing so, the Writer as Witness community text can exemplify how writing is a social act at the heart of an academic community. "Ideally, We Gon' Be Alright will give our students something to talk about, both in and out of class," Wootton says.