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Class of 2024 Common Experience pick "Know My Name" addresses sexual assault, self-empowerment

This year’s Duke Common Experience summer reading book will give members of the Class of 2024 a chance to grapple with themes of sexual assault and self-empowerment before starting their first year at Duke.

"Know My Name: A Memoir," by Chanel Miller, was announced in a May 5 news release as this year’s Common Experience pick. Miller wrote the memoir to give her own perspective on having been a victim of sexual assault, the trial of perpetrator Brock Turner—then a student at Stanford University—and her path to cope with the aftermath. 

Miller will speak to the incoming class in person or virtually, according to the news release.

"Know My Name" was picked by a 14-person committee. The committee brings in input from Duke faculty and staff, but also includes rising seniors.

The group doesn't come to the table with a specific topic in mind, but instead tries to choose a book that will generate meaningful conversations. There are no set criteria, but "Know My Name" was an easy choice, Kevin Erixson, DukeCreate director and a member of the selection committee, wrote in an email. Erixson wrote that the memoir was at or near the top of everyone's list.

Although the committee makes the final call, nominations for the Common Experience summer reading book can come from anywhere. The committee sends out a link to the Duke community, and often ends up with suggestions from faculty, students and alumni, according to Jordan Hale, director of New Student Programs and associate dean of housing and residence life.

This year, "Know My Name" was picked from a list of more than 75 recommendations, just ahead of three other finalists: "The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead, "Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid and "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi.

Hale lauded Miller's "bravery, honesty, integrity and raw emotions," but he also recognized that the book may be a challenging read for some students. While the Common Experience summer reading program is run by the Office of New Student Programs, that office is working with the Duke Women's Center to lead book discussions over the summer.

"Anyone can join those discussions and the team in the Women's Center will read the book with students starting in mid-June," Hale wrote in an email. "The group will read two chapters a week then come together to discuss the content from those chapters."

The First-Year Advisory Counselor program will help take the lead in guiding students through the book. FACs usually help lead student discussions during orientation week, leading up to a visit from the author.

Given their central role in guiding conversations about the Common Experience reading, FACs will get extra training to make sure that they're equipped for this fall's discussions.

"We are also making some shifts in FAC training to prepare FACs to cover the content in a way that practices empathy and gives adequate trigger warnings since this can be a triggering topic," Hale wrote.  

The committee tries to make sure that the Common Experience selection is paired with a chance to hear from the author. Once the committee narrows their list to a top 10, they reach out to authors to ensure that they are both available and affordable—which informs the final book choice, Hale wrote. 

Along with addressing an important topic for incoming first-years, Erixson wrote that the characters in the memoir are relatable to students, giving the book an extra layer for students to identify with.

The Common Experience program began in 2001 and brings incoming first-years together to read the same book over the summer, usually culminating in orientation week discussions and a chance to hear from the book's author. Reading the book is a recommendation rather than a requirement, as students aren't graded on it.

To make it as easy as possible to read the book, copies are mailed to members of the incoming first-year class—in this case, a special printed edition.

The books are usually chosen to spark discussion on complicated topics. Duke's recent Class of 2020 graduates read "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson, a legal memoir about the fight to free an African American man wrongly convicted of murder, which was later adapted into a popular movie.

Duke made national news in 2015 after assigning "Fun Home," Alison Bechdel's graphic-novel memoir, which touches on sexuality and complicated family dynamics. Some students refused to read the book, complaining that it was "pornographic" and therefore ran afoul of their religious beliefs. Others claimed that choosing the book was insensitive to conservatives.

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