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First Taste of College Life
Includes Reading, Debate
September 6, 1999

or the class of 2003, Black Dog of Fate proved to be more than just a summer reading assignment. It was a practical introduction to the exchange of views that lies at the heart of a college education.

As part of the Week of Welcome, incoming freshmen were asked to read Peter Balakian's Black Dog of Fate, an account of his childhood in New Jersey and his Armenian family's suffering at the hands of the Turkish government during World War I.

In the coming-of-age memoir, the events of the past that haunt Balakian's relatives are the same events they refuse to discuss.

"The thing that haunted everyone the most in my family was the thing nobody talked about," Balakian told more than 1,000 incoming freshmen on Sunday.

During Balakian's talk and the small-group discussions that preceded it, the students heard that discussion - not denial - is the way to overcome past injustices.

The selection of the book sparked controversy this summer when some members of the University community claimed that the book presents only the Armenian side of the events.

The book was chosen by a committee that picked it because it was well written and might be relevant to students, said Susan M. Steele, vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction.

Administrators were surprised by the controversy, Steele said. However, the debate did serve a valuable function by teaching students how to listen to and discuss differing points of view.

"The existence of debate affirms the reason you came to college," Steele told the students on Sunday.

Veronica Makowsky, a professor of English, who was on the committee that selected the book, said Sunday's small-group discussions provided a model of a college-level discussion, in which students talk rather than simply listening to a lecture.

In classrooms and on patches of lawn across campus on Sunday, students engaged in discussion and debate about the book in small groups led by faculty and staff members.

In a South Campus room, Derek Allinson, a professor of plant science, told a group of seven freshmen that their session was meant to introduce them to intellectual debate about items of concern. Talking about the book soon led to a discussion of recent events, such as the earthquake in Turkey and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

In Arjona Building, Jonathan Hufstader, associate professor of English, used the book to segue into a discussion about students' personal lives and their ancestry. The new students were soon engaged in a lively chat about where their relatives came from, why they came to America and what brought them to this country.

And across the street in Monteith Building, Maureen Croteau, a professor and head of the journalism department, led a group of students in a discussion about how difficult it is for different groups to agree on something as controversial as the Armenian genocide.

The opinions of people with differing viewpoints should be heard, said freshman Chris Taylor. "If we ignore them, then we're not respecting what they have to say."

During his talk at Jorgensen Auditorium, Balakian characterized his book as a chronicle of the transmission of trauma from generation to generation. Balakian, a poet and professor of English at Colgate University, said that attempts to deny past tragedies rarely succeed. "No matter how hard people try to repress horror and pain, it seems they can't do it," he said.

This was the second year for the book discussion. Last year's incoming freshman read and discussed Amistad by David Pesci, an alumnus and former UConn publicist.

Allison Thompson