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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

Uncovering Genuine Diversity

[LibraryThing.com] — I have sung the praises of LibraryThing.com in this space before. LibraryThing is an online cataloging system for small libraries that can not only help to keep your books in order but will also link you up with lots of other interesting book-related people and information. It’s a perfect tool for a small residential college library, as well as for personal collections of all sizes (like my own).

One of the features that has been available on LibraryThing for some time is a book suggestion service, similar to what you can find at Amazon.com and other online booksellers. These suggestion services, based on the behavior of all the users of the site, will tell you, “If you liked book X, you’ll almost certainly like book Y.” Simple, straightforward, and helpful.

But LibraryThing has now gone a step further: it has created a kind of anti-recommendation service called the UnSuggester. Enter a book you like and it will give you a ranked list of “opposite” books that you almost certainly will not like. These “unsuggestions” are based on the behavior of thousands of LibraryThing members and on the millions of books that they have entered into their catalogs.

For example, if I put Darwin’s Origin of Species into the UnSuggester as a favorite book—one that I have taught on many occasions and have often had students memorize passages from—I will be offered as anti-books such titles as Sushi for Beginners: A Novel and Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas: Further, Further Confessions of Georgia Nicolson. Alternatively, if I enter Carl Sagan’s important polemic The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, I will meet with the unsuggestions of Shopaholic & Sister and The Undomestic Goddess. Pick a favorite book of your own and give it a try.

But wherefore this exordium? Because this is about as thought-provoking an exercise as one could wish for in a residential college setting. I don’t think you can tell much that is important about people by looking at their skin color, or by knowing what neighborhood they grew up in, or by seeing how they spell their last names. But I do think that one of the clearest windows into a person’s soul is the contents of that person’s bookshelf.

I confess that I’d probably have a hard time slogging through losing myself in Sushi for Beginners. And having to read Shopaholic & Sister would probably be as enjoyable as sticking needles in my eyes an instructively broadening experience. But of course millions of people do read things like this willingly. And many of them will be your students. (And some of them may be you.)

So for an exercise in genuine diversity, here’s what to do. Get a bunch of students together and ask them each to list a favorite book. Then compile a set of opposites with LibraryThing’s UnSuggester. Then find some other people for whom those opposites are favorite books, and make the opposing pairs of people sit down together for lunch and have them talk about their respective book lists.

Then comes the important part, the exercise in sympathetic imagination: ask them if they can explain how it is that their opposite number sees the world. They may not succeed, but the effort itself will be wonderfully worthwhile.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016