During orientation, students at Lafayette College paused between the ice breakers and the talks about behaving responsibly to watch a movie. Far from being an entertainment break, it was their first intellectual exercise on the Easton, Pa., campus.
While many colleges include a book discussion in orientation, this summer Lafayette sent out a guide to "reading" film, inviting new students to take a closer look at "Crash," an Oscar-winning look at racial dynamics in Los Angeles. After a screening at orientation in late August, they met with professors in groups of 30 to talk about everything from stereotypes to camera angles.
"It was a good idea, because ... being in such a diverse place as Lafayette, you need to be aware of other people's cultures, so that you don't have to crash with them," says Ryan White, a new student from Washington, D.C., who plans to study neuroscience.
He says the 90-minute session got his "brain flowing" for the level of intense discussions he'd soon be having in philosophy class. And, as an African-American on a campus that's only about 20 percent minority or international students, Mr. White was pleasantly surprised that orientation addressed diversity so directly.
"They kind of went straight into the fire with it," he says. "It shows they take this issue seriously."
Common reading experiences for college freshmen have been around for more than a decade, but they've grown in popularity in the past five years, says Jodi Levine Laufgraben, an associate vice provost at Temple University in Philadelphia. They give students a chance to know professors in a less formal setting. They introduce students to how they're expected to back up arguments with evidence from the "text."
And in Lafayette's case, the experience asks a visual generation to be more analytical about what they're seeing.
Ms. Laufgraben is not aware of many campuses that have opted for a film instead of a book, but says there's a trend toward combining various media.
At Temple last year, incoming students read "West of Kabul, East of New York," by Tamim Ansary, and "Crash" was one of the movies playing in a related film festival. Emerson College students arriving in Boston this week will read Ernesto Che Guevara's "Motorcycle Diaries" and watch a documentary about the photographer who made a famous image of the Latin American revolutionary.
Lafayette has made an effort in recent years to involve the entire campus, not just first-year students, in common experiences that strengthen civic discourse.
"In the wake of 9/11, we've seen that discussions have become polarized.... [But] if in higher education we can't have important discussions about difficult issues, then where else can we?" says Gladstone "Fluney" Hutchinson, an economics professor and Lafayette's former dean.
Inspired by the work of the Imagining America consortium based at the University of Michigan, Mr. Hutchinson and others have worked to give students outlets to express perspectives on what it means to be American. Last year, Lafayette's orientation used Art Spiegelman's graphic novel "In the Shadow of No Towers," which provoked many "serendipitous conversations," Hutchinson says, about perceptions of America since the 9/11 attacks.
As dean of studies at the time, Hutchinson says he braced himself for controversy, but it never came. During orientation, "around 30 parents came up and said, 'I wish I was starting school today.' "
Colleges need to give students experiences with unfamiliar viewpoints and cultures, but at the same time offer "the kinds of foundations, skills, and values that allow them to process these new anxieties ... [and to] be more prepared for leadership," Hutchinson says.
For this year, a faculty committee chose "Crash," before it won the Oscar, partly to make the sensitive topics of race and class more accessible, says Rose Marie Bukics, the current dean of studies.
Alix Ohlin, an English professor who helped write the film guide, says that she offered students some historical context about race relations in L.A. to get the conversation flowing. "We talked about things like Rodney King or O.J. Simpson or the Watts riots. Many of these things are not even on [some] students' radar," she says. "I was really pleased with the sophistication and the sensitivity of the students."
Loretta Cacace had already seen "Crash" four times, but she was still excited to pick it apart with classmates. "In a discussion setting, you see everyone's opinions and, like, how they'll react ... when hot issues come into play." A white student with Italian heritage, she has diverse friends in New York, but for students who haven't had that opportunity, she thinks talking about "Crash" was a good starting point.
According to a national survey of college freshmen last year by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, 70 percent had socialized with people of another race or ethnic group; 49 percent said it was an important or essential goal to improve their understanding of other countries and cultures; and 33 percent placed high value on promoting racial understanding.
Edward Perez, a new student with Ecuadorean roots who hails from the "melting pot" of West New York, N.J., says the new part is that at Lafayette, "I can see I'm a minority." At home, racial issues are just a fact of life, he says, but "now I'm discussing it with people who ... haven't had a lot of interaction with minorities."
Knowing he's about to start having to read hundreds of pages a week for classes, Mr. Perez was also relieved to have a film assignment instead of a book.
That hints at a small debate among faculty about whether parents would think a film assignment was too easy, says Andy Smith, an English and American studies professor who co-wrote the film guide.
The point of the exercise, he says, was to help people see that there's more to films than just entertainment. "Our students are very much immersed in visual culture ... so they see images constantly, but they don't necessarily slow down enough to understand images in all their complexity." The guide gives them a vocabulary and shows them how to analyze a variety of elements in the film.
The Imagining America theme at Lafayette has tapped everything from plays to spoken-word poetry over the past several years. And the result, Smith says, is an energetic intersection between the arts and the issues of the day.