A look at Elon’s 2020 Common Reading: ‘Biased’ by Jennifer L. Eberhardt

The 2019 book by Eberhardt, a Stanford University professor and MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant recipient, takes on additional meaning this year amid widespread protests against racism and oppression.

For nearly two decades, Elon University has selected a Common Reading book for all incoming first-year students to read, with the work woven into their first-year courses in a variety of ways. The goal is to spark discussion across the campus and throughout their academic pursuits, with the book’s author typically visiting campus to engage with students and discuss the work.

This fall, the Class of 2024 will be focused on “Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do,” a 2019 work by Stanford University Professor and MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Jennifer Eberhardt. The book focuses on exposing the racial biases that exist at all levels of society, while also providing tools for addressing them.

The selection of “Biased” as this year’s Common Reading now seems prescient, given the widespread protests against racism and oppression now being undertaken across the country, though the process of choosing the book began long before these protests were sparked.

Today at Elon caught up with Associate Professor Amy Johnson, executive director of the Elon Core Curriculum and Common Reading coordinator, and Senior Lecturer Paula Patch, assistant director of first-year initiatives of the Elon Core Curriculum, to find out more about this year’s selection and the opportunities all students, faculty and staff will have to engage with “Biased” this year.

What is the process used to select the Common Reading each year?

Johnson – We solicit nominations from students, alumni, faculty, staff and community partners.  We then use a general rubric to narrow down the selections — cost, availability, length, etc. Once we have the long list, we start reading. As we read, we also watch author interviews and read reviews of the book.

The committee meets in April to decide on the top two to three books we will read more closely over the summer. Those books are announced to the community as a whole and everyone is allowed to provide feedback to help us make the final decision.

What were some of the main reasons the committee selected “Biased”?

Johnson – Anti-black racism is woven into the fabric of the United States.  We have had a couple of books selected as the Common Reading in the past that looked at the legacy of racial chattel slavery, failed reconstruction and Jim Crow.  These books focused on systems of oppression. They also largely focus on race.  We thought it was time to grapple with our individual acts and thoughts that contribute to (or do not actively seek to dismantle) biased systems. “Biased” is thought-provoking, engaging, well-researched and timely.

In terms of the discussion of racial bias, Dr. Eberhardt presents the material in a way that doesn’t immediately make white people tune out, dismiss it or become overcome with “guilt.” She provides people of color with the vocabulary needed to name the acts of bias perpetrated against them. And, finally, she helps all of us think about what we can do.

We had no idea that George Floyd would be murdered when we selected this book. But unfortunately, violence against black bodies is not uncommon nor are the other issues Dr. Eberhardt raises.

From your perspective, what is the value of having a common reading that’s undertaken by a large group of people?

Johnson and Patch – It’s so important.  At the most basic level, the common reading builds community inside and outside of the classroom. When students (and faculty and staff) read over the summer, they talk about the book to their families — siblings, parents, grandparents — and friends. Each year at Family Weekend, we partner with Family Engagement to host Common Reading discussions with parents and grandparents, and they are very popular. The shared reading experience creates connection and, for our students, gives them a chance to learn not only from us here on campus, but from their family members.

On campus, the Common Reading not only provides our students with an introduction to our intellectual climate, it offers themes that people from disparate backgrounds, experiences, and points of view can come together over to discuss.  We can affirm, disagree, and challenge this one thing that we all have in common.

A good Common Reading experience can have an impact not only on campus, but in the communities our students, staff, and faculty belong to.

We wish everyone would engage the common reading every year. As faculty and staff we sometimes get so caught up in whether or not we “like” the book or can “teach” the book that we lose sight of the point of a common reading.

The process that led to the selection of “Biased” began more than a year ago, and current events have made the work and its message even more timely and poignant. How do you expect the current protests and calls for reform to impact the discussion of the book this fall?

Johnson – At the most basic level, I’m hoping that it will prepare people who have never thought about issues of bias to engage the topics and those who devote their life work to these causes to feel rejuvenated and bold.

As a black woman at Elon, I often “tone down” my discussions of race in the classrooms and in my administrative and committee roles.  Sometimes I do it because I am simply too tired to deal with the push back or having to explain and defend. This is exhausting work. Other times I’ve done it to mitigate negative student reviews or being ostracized from important conversations.

The protests have certainly made it even more clear to me that I have to gather my strength and push harder against injustice. I also recognize that I am at a point in my life and academic career that I can do that. Many marginalized and racialized people are still not in a place to do this work at Elon with the ferocity necessary to wake folks up.

Patch – The current national and international conversations have led to a renewed interest in the Common Reading as a campus-wide experience. With so many other claims on our time and attention, we sometimes opt out of important opportunities for shared experiences, especially those that appear to only affect our first-year students.

The best Common Reading experiences (such as the one with “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, our 2016-17 Common Reading) are those that are picked up and supported across all parts of the university. I hope this year’s renewed interest will carry over into coming years.

The Common Reading is for more than just first-year students. How can other students, faculty and staff members engage with the book and foster discussion this fall?

Johnson – Read it and be open-minded. Ask questions and don’t be afraid to hear the answers. There are already several planned conversations over the summer and all of next year, but I would love to see spontaneous conversations pop up as well. The book is free to all faculty and staff who request it, but unfortunately students have to buy it. If you can, subsidize the book for a student/alumni to further foster engagement.

Patch – Talk about the book and ideas in whatever space you occupy: If you employ student workers, talk about it to them. Check students into a dining hall? Start a discussion there. Assign personal reflections? Use the Common Reading as the starting point for a reflection prompt. Hear students talking about it? Join the conversation. Advise a student organization? Ask them to bring the Common Reading ideas to bear on their work. And talk to your colleagues. The conversation isn’t just for students. We’ve had Employee Resource Groups, such as the Women’s Forum at Elon, have Common Reading discussions.

Jennifer Eberhardt was scheduled to visit campus in September. How have those plans changed given the response to the pandemic?

Johnson – We will have a virtual conversation with Dr. Eberhardt.  We plan to solicit questions from the community for her to answer in a public address and Q&A.  We should know more soon. I am excited to see how BOLD Elon will be.

Curious? Find out more about the Common Reading here and find a list responses to Frequently Asked Questions about the Common Reading is available here. Elon faculty and staff members can request a free copy of “Biased” by filling out this form.