Metamorphosing into Freshmen with Kafka

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Over the summer, each member of the incoming freshman class will receive—and, ideally, read—a copy of The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka’s disquieting novella about a man who awakes to find himself transformed into a giant insect. Come the afternoon of September 6, following a morning of pertinent lectures, the Class of 2004 will divide into small groups—each led by a member of the faculty with a different approach to the text—and discuss various aspects of the book.
    The text for this year’s Penn Reading Project (PRP) was chosen by a committee made up of faculty and staff representatives from the four undergraduate schools as well as one student. Dr. David Fox, associate director of college houses and academic services and the coordinator for this year’s PRP, says the committee always tries to use a text “that can be examined in a multidisciplinary way that brings together the various departments of the schools.” Metamorphosis, he adds, “lends itself well to that kind of approach. It’s often described as a kind of founding document in the [development] of modern consciousness. It’s also from a particularly rich historical and cultural period—1915 European history. And as a literary text, it’s very, very strong—one of the great novellas of the century. My students have always responded to it—its central questions of alienation and belonging seem very much part of student consciousness.”
    In the project’s 10 years, incoming freshmen have read and discussed works ranging from Euripides’ The Bacchae to Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and they have attended lectures, theatrical productions and other apposite events. Some books and PRPs have been “extremely successful, and some less so,” Fox allows. And it’s not always easy to predict the successes.
    “When I did the Arcadia group, I wasn’t expecting students to like it at all, and I was shocked that they not only liked it; they loved it. I suspect part of it is that they had a better background in math than I expected, and certainly than I have.” In addition, he came to see that while he had identified with the play’s older characters, “the kids identified with Thomasina, making scholarly discoveries of very great significance. And I think that’s very appealing to a younger group.”
    Having served on the committees that selected the last three works, Fox says that he has found the selection process “endlessly fascinating and sometimes frustrating—in an odd way, it’s helped me understand how academic awards and prizes are given.” While the project is obviously designed for students, “the faculty always seem to like it,” he notes. “Some have done the full 10 texts. And, as you might imagine, there are slightly different criteria for making a book popular with faculty than students.”

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