First-year Students Read Globally

August 18, 2003

Arthur Nead
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Early this summer Tulane freshmen opened a book and were transported to an exotic culture halfway around the world and 50 years back in time. The book is Tamim Ansary's West of Kabul, East of New York, the focus of this year's Tulane reading project--a key feature of the university's freshman orientation program.

inside0801_kabulThe book is the true story of San Francisco writer Ansary's birth and early years in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, his coming of age in 1960s America and his subsequent disturbing travels through a transformed Middle East.

The reading project originated two years ago as a result of a review by a committee of faculty, staff and students convened by the provost's office to examine all aspects of the "undergraduate experience," including freshman orientation.

"One of the things that became immediately apparent to the committee, as we looked at every element of the undergraduate experience," says associate provost Ana Lopez, "was that the orientation process was geared to the social life of students and their life as students in the university. Orientation was very practical, it was nuts and bolts, it was social, it was fun, it got them situated on campus, but it did not begin the process of introducing them to the intellectual life of the Tulane community."

So the committee instituted the reading project to present an intellectual challenge to new students even before they arrive on campus.

The project kicks off in June with each incoming first-year student receiving a copy of the book chosen for that year, together with a description of the project and its aim--to provoke an intellectual interchange at the very start of the academic year that will bring together a good many people throughout the Tulane community, including first-year students, staff and faculty.

Last year's project featured John Barry's Rising Tide, an in-depth examination of the wide-ranging impacts of the great 1927 Mississippi River flood. "This year the selection committee, again, composed of faculty, staff and students, decided that it wanted to have a text that spoke to contemporary global issues, but from a perspective that was not United States-centric," says Lopez. "We looked at a lot of fiction from the Middle East," says Lopez. "We wanted a way of filtering large global issues through the personal, through the individual, and through the plight of individuals."

In the course of its search for a work of fiction, the committee happened upon West of Kabul, East of New York. "It is precisely what we were looking for," Lopez says. "Although it's not fictional, it is based upon an individual's experience of that bicultural positionality that we wanted to bring to our students' consciousness. What does it feel like to be 'other'? "I'm hoping that the book will allow us to generate a campuswide discussion to begin with," says Lopez. "And then there are other elements built into the project."

Supriya Nair, professor of English and African and African diaspora studies, will deliver an orientation program keynote address about the book. Immediately after the talk, the audience will break out into discussion groups led by staff and faculty from across the disciplines. In addition, first-year students will have the opportunity to enter an essay contest in which they can write on issues raised by the book or during the discussions.

The essays will be due a month after the discussion sessions. Capping this year's reading project will be a visit to Tulane by Tamim Ansary, scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. in Dixon Recital Hall. "What we're hoping to be able to do is have the essay award winners be the interlocutors for the conversation with Mr. Ansary when he comes to campus," says Lopez. Ansary's visit will be open to the public.

Arthur Nead can be reached at

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