By Christina Bailey Robbins
The Commons Reading for the 2019-20 academic year will be The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan R. Wente and Gregory Melchor-Barz, interim dean of The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons, announced the selection March 11.
An annual tradition, the Commons Reading is a book sent to incoming first-year undergraduate students the summer before they arrive on campus. The reading is discussed on The Ingram Commons and across campus within the Vanderbilt Visions program and in other contexts.
“The Commons Reading is a critical shared experience for our incoming students as they begin their personal and collective scholarly journeys and prepare to make significant contributions to the intellectual life of the university and beyond,” Wente said. “The Lies That Bind is an excellent choice for our students and others wanting to explore the important and timely issues surrounding the meaning and impact of ‘identity’ in our lives.”
Published in 2018, The Lies That Bind explores the nature and history of different facets of identity, while questioning the ways in which social construction and labeling limits the individual’s understanding of their own identity. The book explores the idea that social identities are not something that can simply be erased, but that when collectively leveraged, these identities can tackle the moral challenges of the modern world.
Appiah, the book’s author, is a British-born Ghanaian-American philosopher, cultural theorist and novelist. He currently serves as a professor of philosophy and law at New York University and writes the “Ethicist” column in the New York Times magazine.
“A shared reading on The Ingram Commons allows collective conversations to occur within the first-year experience,” Melchor-Barz said. “This year’s Commons Reading engages issues that are fundamental not only to first-year students, but more specifically to the overall student experience at Vanderbilt.”
He noted that Appiah’s book gives students opportunities to consider the ways we frame, question, shape and reject the identities we both inherit and adopt.
“The identities that form and inform the lives of our first-year students contribute to academic and social spheres at Vanderbilt, and we can draw on the insights of this book to think collectively about what binds us together and that which separates us,” he said. “This is a significant opportunity to engage issues of identity on The Ingram Commons in tandem with the rich resources we have with our campus partners.”
The selection process for the 2019-20 Commons Reading was driven by a committee of Vanderbilt faculty members who serve as VUceptors – the mentors who, along with student VUceptors, facilitate small-group discussions among first-year students through the Vanderbilt Visions curriculum during the fall semester. This year’s committee also included student representation from the VUcept Executive Board.
“As a committee, we found The Lies That Bind to be an engaging but rigorous exploration of social identity from multiple perspectives, giving incoming students a common language to begin making connections with one another and the diverse populations they will encounter here at Vanderbilt,” said Christin Essin, associate professor of theatre and chair of the selection committee. “Appiah’s book also challenges those of us helping to guide first-year students’ transition to campus to speak across our different disciplines and model Vanderbilt’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
Ann Marie Deer Owens contributed to this story.