Op-Ed: UAR addresses concerns over Three Books selection

June 7, 2012, 12:05 a.m.

For the first time, Stanford’s Three Books program goes beyond the book: a documentary film, a suite of smartphone applications described on a website that includes articles and video documentation, as well as a book. It is hoped that the diversity of format encourages students to think about how ideas are expressed differently by the written word, in filmic presentation, through music, or by using contemporary social media.

In light of the opening of the $112 million Bing Concert Hall, Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) chose to focus Three Books 2012 on the arts and chose Professor Mark Applebaum to select the texts.  Professor Applebaum believes the opening of the concert hall begs the questions: What is it for? Who gets to use it?  The issue of access that surrounds the concert hall is deliberately paralleled in the Three Books selections: what ideas are worthy of our attention (a book about heavy metal); which people ought to make art (a film about a 4-year old); and who should have access to tools (a discussion about smartphone applications).

When the idea to examine smartphone applications initially surfaced, we were intrigued by the possibility and conscientious about the inclusion of a medium that, at first glance, may seem divisive. We understand the initial reaction the Three Books announcement has generated from some in our community because we share these concerns. Because equity and access are among our core values in UAR, we have gone to great lengths from the outset to make this an inclusive, deliberate and thought-provoking program for all of our incoming students this fall. In April, Professor Applebaum met with the Resident Fellows (who will lead the dorm discussions following the event) and shared an extensive study guide.  Elements of this study guide are presented in a video that will be released to incoming students in July. Although these materials contextualize the program and selections, the short announcement sent to The Daily last month was instead a press release about the texts and described neither the plans for access nor the conceptual agenda of the program. Given that a news brief (“Three Books inspired by opening of Bing Concert Hall,” May 25) and an editorial (“Choice for Three Books disappointing,” June 1) reacted only to the press release, we’d like to elaborate on those issues here.

To be perfectly clear: there is no expectation that students own or buy a smartphone for this program. In a few weeks, students will receive a mailing that includes the book, DVD and a letter from Professor Applebaum introducing them to the program and a special Smule website set up by Professor Ge Wang exclusively for incoming students. The website provides video demonstrations of the applications, links to relevant articles about the culture and meaning of smartphone applications and ideas for expanding on uses for this technology. To fully engage in all of the content offered, students will need to dedicate several hours (not unlike reading a book). In some respects it is this website – not the apps themselves – that is the Three Books selection.

We want students to experience the applications first hand and have a plan for this. During New Student Orientation (NSO), residential staff will provide devices with the apps pre-loaded so students can explore them in person, make music with their dormmates and go on a campus sonic scavenger hunt together. This will be a scheduled activity during NSO – not unlike a field trip to a percussion studio in which everyone can use (but need not purchase) an instrument.

Regardless, it is not the apps themselves but rather a discussion of them that offers an opportunity to explore relevant issues such as the digital divide, Stanford’s Silicon Valley identity and if Stanford students should expect entrepreneurial greatness. It is the content of Professor Wang’s website that, coupled with the other texts, evokes the larger questions we are asking: What is important? Who gets to decide? Why are things included or excluded? How are these questions relevant to a liberal education? What is the role of the student in actively shaping that education? There are no right answers to these questions, but they are good starting points for the dialogue we hope to cultivate with students this fall and throughout their careers at Stanford. As Professor Applebaum states in his study guide, “We hope for a class of open-minded, joyful skeptics, not sleepwalking academic sycophants.”

Part of that dialogue, we are certain, will address the Editorial Board’s opinion that the apps don’t offer an “opportunity for intellectual engagement.” As an academic community, we actively encourage the expression of differing opinions, and the Board’s questioning of the Three Books program aligns with our intent. However, we regret that the Board did not take the time to first learn about the logistical infrastructure and conceptual agenda supporting our selection. We believe, had the Board considered the goals and care that went into designing this year’s program, it would share our excitement about what is sure to be a most thoughtful event. Even though the editorial failed to tell the full story, it has succeeded in sparking the very questions the selections are intended to provoke.


Julie Lythcott-Haims ’89

Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising

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