Reading Project Floated for Incoming Students

September 27, 2002

Arthur Nead

Summer reading lists aren't anything new for Tulane's bright and accomplished freshmen, but this year's incoming students were presented with a unique reading assignment. Before they attended a single class or heard their first lecture on campus, incoming students were asked to read Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John Barry.

They were informed that they would be talking about it during orientation. To make certain that everyone would be on the same page, all 1,500 freshmen were sent, free, their own copy of the book.

"Tulane has always had a rich tradition of engaging students intellectually," says Lester Lefton, senior vice president of academic affairs and provost. "We know that the sooner you engage students intellectually in the life of the university, the better. By sending them the book in advance and by deconstructing text and history and economics during orientation, what we're doing is sending students a message that says their experience here at Tulane is about ideas, about the life of the mind."

The common reading project arose as a result of the Undergraduate Action Committee's assessment of the experience of incoming freshmen. "One thing that became apparent was that orientation provided important information that students needed," says Ana Lopez, associate provost. "It had a plethora of interesting social activities. It contained good foundation-building rituals, like the president's convocation. But it had absolutely no academic content."

During the early days of the fall semester, when their courses are just beginning to gear up, freshmen are typically not challenged academically, says Lopez. "So we said, 'What if we had them all read a book, then made that book the centerpiece of the first few weeks of the semester?'" says Lopez. "Can we engage them, through the vehicle of a book, in the life of the mind and bring the entire community together to demonstrate what we are capable of doing as an intellectual community?"

Rising Tide looks at the background of the great flood, chronicles the disaster itself and goes on to examine its many implications. These range from social and political upheavals in the South to changes in the careers of politicians such as Herbert Hoover, as well as major shifts in the way the federal government came to be viewed.

On his multidisciplinary method to writing history, Barry says: "When I approach a subject, I try to understand it, and I try not to move on to the next phase until I understand the first phase. That's why a book about the 1927 flood begins in the early 1800s. To understand the flood, you need to understand the engineering principles as well as the personalities involved."

"This seemed the most provocative text that would most engage them in the novelty and idiosyncrasies of their new environment," says Lopez.

Upon arriving at orientation, freshmen were immediately plunged into the Tulane academic environment. They attended a lecture about the themes in Rising Tide by philosophy professor Michael Zimmerman and were later divided up into some 50 breakout groups led by faculty and staff to discuss the book. And Rising Tide's author, John Barry, is scheduled to visit campus Sept. 26 to discuss the book.

Barry has been a distinguished visiting scholar at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research for Tulane and Xavier universities for the last three years, but his connection with Tulane goes back to 1973, when he was an assistant coach for the Tulane football team. The author of several best-selling books, Barry is currently doing research at Tulane on a history of the 1918 influenza pandemic. How will the success of the reading project, now in its first year, be judged?

"We're going to do surveys of students and faculty," says Lefton. "We want them to assess if they learned anything, if it enriched their experience, if they know more now than they did before. "We want to get the students involved with the faculty," says Lefton, "because that connection is central to all the things that go on here. It's a crucial part of the Tulane experience."

Arthur Nead may be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000