As announced recently, the Three Books Discussion for incoming freshmen will feature Chuck Klosterman’s memoir “Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota,” the DVD documentary “My Kid Could Paint That,” and the suite of “Smule” smartphone applications. Associate professor of music Mark Applebaum, who selected the works, said these “texts” are intended to motivate students “to ask broader questions about where art is made, what art is important and who should decide.” While we at the Editorial Board believe that encouraging students to think critically about art is a fine goal, we are disappointed with the selection of a smartphone application suite: not only does it alienate a significant fraction of the incoming freshmen, it strays too far from the purpose of the Three Books program.
Three Books is designed to introduce students to the intellectual atmosphere found at Stanford. Yet we wonder if the inclusion of an app suite will prompt this desired effect. This is not to say that tactile learning is not useful under any circumstances. Rather, we have trouble pinpointing the intellectual potential of a set of apps that lets you autotune your voice or play an Ocarina. Even if the smartphone apps do showcase an intellectual component, will incoming students draw the appropriate conclusions? With three physical books, readers have considerably more time and space to reflect on various themes, drawing broader conclusions that link the texts. With one book, one movie, and one application suite, we doubt that the intertext connections will be as deep, particularly given that students are unlikely to spend more than 20 minutes with the apps and that the app suite will not be distributed until the chaos of New Student Orientation (NSO). At most, then, we believe the application suite should have been included as a fourth selection, perhaps as a supplement to a text drawn from the literature on “prosumers,” defined as average consumers who also produce high-quality art, often through the use of digital software.
Most of all, owning a smartphone should not be a prerequisite to participate in the Three “Books” program. Even if Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) works out the logistics of creating a website that hosts the apps over the summer, five of the seven apps make prominent use of a touchscreen, a feature on only a few laptops and personal computers. Anyone relying on this website will therefore have an inferior experience. Even though UAR promises to make smartphone devices available for checkout during NSO, the organizers have nevertheless implicitly created a classist norm for incoming students – that of owning a smartphone. This is a troubling standard, as there is a sizeable portion of incoming students that will not own such a device for financial, personal or other reasons. These students will be made to instantly feel different (and likely inferior) for not owning what amounts to a luxury device that few Stanford students truly need. Despite UAR’s best intentions, the message this selection sends will inevitably lead to feelings of exclusion during a time when the administration should be focused on smoothing the college transition for students from all socioeconomic classes.
In short, we hope that Applebaum and UAR will make the smartphone application suite an optional fourth “text” and in its place send students a text – which need not be literary – that offers more opportunity for intellectual engagement. This is the Class of 2016’s first exposure to Stanford intellectual life, and the Three Books organizers should do everything in their power to make sure this opportunity is not wasted. In addition, this replacement text should be something that all incoming students can fully appreciate. One of the points of pride of the Three Books program is providing the texts free of charge so that students from all financial backgrounds can equally participate. Including the smartphone application suite breaks from this ideal, and we hope UAR does everything in its power to promptly remedy the situation and send a more inclusive message to incoming students.