Editor's Page



by Sally Harris

Having first-year college students read the book Einstein's Dreams, written by Alan Lightman, can be compared to having someone who has always viewed the world only through a tiny window walk outside and look at it through a wide-angle lens.

The book, which relates a series of short dreams that Einstein might have had, questions what life might be like if time were configured differently. For example, what if life lasted only one day? Or forever? What if time were a continuous circle instead of past, present, and future? What kinds of lives would people live and what would their values be?

Virginia Tech distributed Einstein's Dreams as a gift to all 4,600 first-year students last fall as part of the Common Book Project, a university-wide Learning Communities initiative, inviting them to read and discuss the novel with peers and faculty members. Initiated by Ron Daniel, associate provost for undergraduate programs, and guided by a multidisciplinary committee of academic and student-affairs faculty chaired by Dianna Benton, special projects coordinator for the provost's office, the project has now entered its second year, when it was distributed to almost 6,000 freshman, new transfer students, and entering veterinary medicine students.

The Common Book Project evolved from discussions with teachers who were interested in improving the intellectual climate for their first-year students. Through use of the book, students can see that different disciplines and courses are interconnected and also can gain a sense of community among fellow students. Another reason for choosing Einstein's Dreams was that its author could visit campus to discuss it with students.

Many teachers voluntarily incorporated the book into their classes, using it creatively with outstanding results. Cheryl Ruggiero in English, for example, had her critical literacy students create fictional worlds as Lightman had done in Einstein's Dreams, but their worlds did not have to differ only in time. "There were some remarkably beautiful creations," Ruggiero says, such as a world that had locked into position with the sun so there was a "luminous" side, an "ominous" side, and a permanent red sunrise/sunset band between. "This project generated some of the best student writing I've ever seen," Ruggiero says.

Ruggiero's students also saw Ann Kilkelly's theater classes' performance piece based on Lightman's worlds. "Volunteers, including faculty and students, performed a combination of reading, acting, body sculpting, and dance that was wonderful," Ruggiero says. A part of the performance focused on one chapter of the book in which Lightman described mechanical time as "unyielding, predetermined" and body time as something that "squirms and wiggles." In the performance, Ruggiero notes, "One dancer moved in body timefree form and flowing, whatever the body felt. A second tap-danced, explaining that, without regular, mechanical time, there could be no tap dancing. The vignette showed the beauty of both approaches to life."

In first-year interior design classes, Hilary Bryon's and Anna Marshall-Baker's students each chose a chapter, condensed it into its most essential qualities, and created a lamp that made a transition between those qualities and light. One student designed a lamp with an incandescent light representing mechanical time and a candle representing body time.

Lamp representing mechanical time, which is linear and dependable Representing body time, which is cyclical and desire-based

Missy Cummings' engineering fundamentals students imagined how the engineering profession would change through different configurations of time. In one story in the book, a city's buildings were in constant motion. Students suggested ways to solve problems posed by such a world: changing ways to provide energy, for example, or keeping the buildings from toppling over when they made turns.

Marlene Preston used Einstein's Dreams in her Communication Studies class to demonstrate that communication involves listeners and readers who see things differently. "Einstein's Dreams opens up a world of perspectives to them," she says. "Students begin to realize that even a seemingly simple concept--time--can have a range of meanings.... Once they have read Einstein's Dreams they become more sensitive to the views held by other people, and they begin to find multiple ways of viewing the world themselves."

Brian Britt's humanities honors students "bridged" the novel to another text. One student, for instance, designed a web page linking the novel's experiments with time to the musical experiments of John Cage and the literary experiments of William Burroughs.

Students in Dixie Reaves's Economics of the Food and Fiber System class designed their own world time, such as one in which the speed of time is in proportion to one's level of happiness. In such a world, the student asked, "Do you strive for happiness, in which case your life flies by? Or do you settle for less than the ideal level of happiness in order to prolong life?" Reaves linked the book with economics by showing that time is a resource and that each person must decide how to allocate his or her 24 hours per day.

According to a random survey of 1,000 students (47 percent return), students with classroom exposure reported significantly higher positive outcomes from the reading. The book also was more widely used by faculty than anticipated: 37 percent said a professor had used the book in class, while 65 percent said professors mentioned the book.

One of the goals of the Common Book Project is to extend a welcome to first-year students. An overwhelming majority (69 percent) thought the gift of a book made a positive statement about the university's intellectual climate, and more than half felt welcomed by the gift even if they didn't read it. However, even readers without classroom experience were more likely than nonreaders to say that the project created a sense of community among first-year students and contributed to intellectual self-confidence. Overall, readers viewed the program as a positive experience in which to engage first-year students.

Many students reported actions associated with learning communities, such as continuing book discussions out of class, meeting new people through the shared reading, and more active engagement in "Einstein" classes than in other classes. According to Melinda Crowder, associate director for student affairs, "Classroom experience encouraged discussion with a broader mix of people and encouraged more out-of-class reflective thinking."

Students who were surveyed said, "It challenged my thinking and stretched my mind"; "It made me think deeply about issues"; "I felt more secure about being a freshman at such a large school"; and "I heard students discuss the book, and that led on to friendships and other acquaintances."

As Bryon says, "You walk through the world with different eyes after you do something like this."