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This year’s Three Books for new students focus on cities, community-building

L.A. Cicero/Stanford News

On June 24, incoming students received the Three Books of Stanford’s 2019 common reading program: “There There,” “Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley” and “The Just City Essays: 26 Visions for Urban Equity, Inclusivity and Opportunity.” Civil and environmental engineering professor Sarah Billington selected the Three Books through a meticulous process, she said, focusing on cities and aiming to “increase [students’] sense of belonging by engaging with and contributing to their community.”

Stanford’s common reading program is a longstanding tradition. Until 2004, the books that freshmen read varied by dorm because resident fellows from each dorm would select the books. Since that year, however, all freshmen and transfer students have been assigned the same three texts to read over the summer. Also since 2004, the authors of the Three Books have been invited to the University to answer students’ questions and to discuss the books.

Senior Vice Provost for Education Harry Elam selected Billington as the faculty moderator who would select this year’s Three Books. Elam told The Daily he was motivated to select Billington in part because of her involvement in undergraduate education, having served on committees including the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) and the recent Residential Experience at Stanford Committee (ResX). But this wasn’t the only factor in Elam’s decision.

“I knew how much [Billington] liked to read and had some ideas that she wanted to put in place,” Elam said. “She’s a great teacher, and she’s someone who is committed to thinking about the power of the messages that will come through the Three Books.”

With this commitment in mind, Billington selected books that revolve around the theme of cities. Tommy Orange’s “There There” is about the narratives of several Native Americans whose stories are all connected in some way. Cary McClelland’s “Silicon City” focuses on the impact of technology on San Francisco, and “The Just City Essays” features 26 different authors from 22 cities who share their opinions on what a “just city” would look like.

Billington hopes the Three Books will communicate to students a message of belonging in a community, as Stanford will be a new community for the majority of incoming students. 

“If students find themselves asking, ‘Do I belong at Stanford?’ they will have seen through these stories and essays that there are many ways in which we belong to a community and that we are not alone,” she wrote in an email to The Daily.

Billington also chose the Three Books with the belief that they will prepare students for future discussions at the University. 

“I believe these readings provide a first university-level opportunity to experience and listen to multiple viewpoints on the same topic,” she wrote. “Students will engage in these kinds of discussions throughout their education.”

Those different viewpoints come from the diversity among the authors, which is part of the criteria for the Three Books. 

“We ask the person selecting the books to pick books that they know will be exciting to incoming students, that have a central theme, and that have diversity in terms of authors; in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality; and also in terms of genre,” Elam said.

After reading the Three Books, students will participate in discussions about the books on Canvas, and they will share their opinions and insights into the novels during these discussions, which take place in the summer.

Last year, comparative literature professor José David Saldívar selected a similarly diverse collection of books, with a central theme of globality and migration. Daily staffer Sarah Kim ‘22 wrote last year that the Three Books in 2018 offered “a glimpse of the diversity at Stanford and reassured” students that they “had a place there.” Belonging remains a principal theme in the 2019 Three Books.

The books celebrate not only belonging but also diversity, according to Billington. She found the diverse selection of books with the help of English Ph.D. candidate Aku Ammah-Tagoe and Urban Studies Program Co-Director Michael Kahan. 

“I immediately thought of Aku because of a great discussion we had over lunch many years ago on urbanization and novels,” Billington wrote. “And I knew Michael Kahan is a co-director of the Urban Studies Program and had wanted to meet him, so I reached out to him.”

Kahan’s conversations with Billington ultimately led to her choosing “Silicon City” and “The Just City Essays.” Kahan said “Silicon City” is relevant to students given that computer science, the most popular major at Stanford, has “grown so much in recent years because students are really interested in the Silicon Valley as a culture.” 

Students should read “The Just City Essays,” Kahan said, because contemporary issues that concern them are crucial to the development of cities.

“All of the important questions that Stanford students are interested in –– whether it’s climate change or inequality or sustainability –– are tied up in how cities around the world are changing right now and how we are designing those cities for the future,” Kahan said.

In her June letter to students, Billington addressed designing future cities, identifying current cities’ lack of support for a sense of belonging. 

“How can we design our growing cities to support belonging, an essential component of human well-being?” she wrote. 

Kahan agreed with Billington, saying “a sense of belonging is really critical –– it’s kind of the first step in order for people to be able to exercise those rights of citizenship.”

Like people moving into a new city, incoming Stanford students are unacquainted with the place where they will shape their futures, but they are connected through the Three Books, which offer them a sense of belonging in the University, according to Kahan. 

“The idea of citizenship comes from the same Latin root as ‘city,’” he said. “What makes a city so important in peoples’ lives is it’s the place where you make fundamental decisions about your life and the way that you relate to your neighbors.”

Contact Mira Ravi at mira.ravi6 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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