Chosen by a selection committee of students, faculty, and staff, the Common Reading Program book is an interesting and stimulating read around which your first academic exercise at Washington University will be based. First-year students are invited to read the book before your arrival on campus and explore its themes in your mind.

The Washington University Common Reading Program aims:

  • To provide a common intellectual experience for incoming students, as well as participating members of the faculty and staff.
  • To provide an opportunity for students to meet and interact with a member of the Washington University faculty or staff in an informal discussion, outside the boundaries of the classroom and formal academic requirements.
  • To introduce students to the spirit of inquiry and debate that is integral to the Washington University academic community.

The Washington University Common Reading Program provides a common intellectual experience for both incoming students and members of our extended campus community. The book discussions offer an opportunity for students to meet and interact with a member of the faculty or staff in an informal discussion, outside the boundaries of the classroom or formal academic requirements, and introduces students to the spirit of inquiry and debate that is integral to the Washington University academic community.

We urge you to approach the Common Reading Program with an open mind. This is a unique and valuable opportunity to challenge yourself, share your ideas, learn about different viewpoints, and engage with your campus community. There are no right or wrong answers, no grades, and diverse perspectives are encouraged. The more involved you choose to be, the more you will take away from this experience. Throughout your time at Washington University, you will encounter themes from the book in classes, discussions, and engaging on-campus programming.

HAPPY READING!

Students will receive a copy of the Common Reading Program book and the Common Reading Program guide by mid-July via mail. International students will receive a digital copy of the book.

About the 2020 Book Selection

Front cover of Weapons of Math Destruction Book

“A former Wall Street quant sounds an alarm on the mathematical models that pervade modern life and threaten to rip apart our social fabric.

We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives—where we go to school, whether we get a car loan, how much we pay for health insurance—are being made not by humans, but by mathematical models. In theory, this should lead to greater fairness: everyone is judged according to the same rules and bias is eliminated. But as Cathy O’Neil reveals in this urgent and necessary book, the opposite is true. The models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable, even when they’re wrong.

Tracing the arc of a person’s life, O’Neil exposes the black box models that shape our future, both as individuals and as a society. These “weapons of math destruction” score teachers and students, sort résumés, grant (or deny) loans, evaluate workers, target voters, set parole, and monitor our health. O’Neil calls on modelers to take more responsibility for their algorithms and on policy makers to regulate their use. But in the end, it’s up to us to become more savvy about the models that govern our lives. This important book empowers us to ask the tough questions, uncover the truth, and demand change.”

—Penguin Random House

About the Author

Cathy O’Neil is a data scientist and author of the blog mathbabe.org. She earned a PhD in mathematics from Harvard and taught at Barnard College before moving to the private sector, where she worked for the hedge fund D.E. Shaw. She then worked as a data scientist at various startups, building models that predict people’s purchases and clicks. O’Neil started the Lede Program in Data Journalism at Columbia and is the author of Doing Data Science. She is currently a columnist for Bloomberg View.

Letter from the Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs

On behalf of the university’s faculty, staff, and the 2020 Common Reading Program, we welcome you to Washington University! We’re very excited you will soon be joining us.

The Common Reading Program initiates your intellectual college experience and highlights the essence of your education—habits of inquiry and debate that underlie effective citizenship in communities beyond the self. Throughout the first semester, you will encounter themes from the book in classes, discussions, and on-campus programming.

As part of the 18th annual Common Reading Program, you will be participating in what we anticipate will be a dynamic and thought-provoking discussion of the book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil.

O’Neil, a mathematician and data scientist studying the ethics of data, questions a common assumption that data are inherently objective. O’Neil challenges readers to investigate data formation and dig deeper into the supposition that data are impartial. O’Neil asks readers to consider the data they are consuming and understand the influence of data on equity and democracy. Regardless of your academic interests or extracurricular passions while at WashU, O’Neil’s book provides you an opportunity to think critically and consider the impact of data on the topics that interest you most.

In your studies here, you will address the great problems of the world. Those challenges underlying our approach to how we conceptualize, translate, and communicate information are certainly among the greatest facing society. So too are disease, inequity, climate change, hunger, and international conflict. These challenges are difficult, but we believe in the passion and fortitude you bring to education and all the great work you will do at WashU and beyond.

WELCOME, BEARS. LET’S GET STARTED.

Robert M. Wild, PhD
Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs

Letter from Student Leaders

WELCOME BEARS!

In her highly acclaimed book of nonfiction, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, Cathy O’Neil explores the ways in which big data and algorithms reinforce discrimination in many spheres of society. In her gripping discussion of what she calls “the dark side of Big Data,” O’Neil encourages readers to think critically about how society and their own lives are affected by mathematical models. These ideas are particularly relevant as you prepare to begin your journey at WashU. O’Neil’s exploration of college ranking criteria and their impact is both fascinating and horrifying to read as a participant in the world of academia. Additionally, with this being an election year, O’Neil’s chapter on the algorithms behind voter targeting is especially pertinent and enlightening.

WashU’s motto is Per Veritatum Vis, Latin for “Strength Through Truth.” We as a community should strive to uncover the truth and help each other. The world will grow stronger from it. This book unveils many truths that empower us to question various aspects of life and demand change. It forces us to ask ourselves what social structures inform the way we go about our daily lives. We encourage you to consider how these concepts will apply to your experience at WashU as you embark on the next step in your journey. The Common Reading Program encourages you to discuss, debate, and engage these concepts with your peers in a conversation guided by a faculty member. This program will serve as the first of many traditions to help kick off your WashU experience.

We, as students of WashU, have many different academic and personal experiences. Whether or not the word “math” in the title daunts or excites you, everyone will gain something from reading this book. It is our hope that, throughout your time at WashU, you will continue to think critically and endeavor to uncover the truth. This book will certainly help to start you on that journey.

Kelly Lennon
English and German Major
Class of 2022

Shubham Tayal
Biology and Anthropology Major
Class of 2022 

Response Prompts

As a participant in the Common Reading Program, you are asked to read Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil, respond to one of the following prompts, and engage in a faculty-led discussion about the book. Common Reading Program staff will communicate additional details regarding response submission and book discussions via email in late July. As you read Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, please consider your response to one of the following prompts.

  1. CRITICAL RESPONSE: O’Neil encourages her readers to examine the power associated with algorithms, noting the potential prejudice in data technology. Read Neil Postman’s short speech, “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change” (1998). Consider Postman’s second thesis (p.2) on the inequitable distribution of advantages and disadvantages amongst populations. Critique a technology that you previously had found little reason to explore. Consider the winners and losers, as well as the benefits and detriments in a concrete example. {~300 words}
  2. CRITICAL RESPONSE: Throughout Weapons of Math Destruction, O’Neil contends that predictive mathematical models are “fundamentally moral,” imbued with the biases and desires of their creators. Do you agree? Is neutrality a desirable attribute of an algorithm? Is it ever possible for an algorithm to be neutral? Discuss algorithm neutrality utilizing a concrete example. {~300 words}
  3. CRITICAL RESPONSE: In her book, O’Neil describes Weapons of Math Destruction (WMD) as algorithms that can lead to harmful outcomes such as impeding democracy and reinforcing inequality. Identify an aspect of society or culture not outlined in O’Neil’s book that you believe is impacted by WMD algorithms. Describe the aspect of society or culture you select, give examples of the impact you believe WMDs can have, and discuss what could be done to address or correct this impact. {~300 words}
  4. NARRATIVE RESPONSE: O’Neil uses the term techno-utopia in her writing. Share your perspective on and understanding of this concept in the form of a personal narrative or work of flash fiction that illustrates what the idea of a techno-utopia means to you. {~300 words}
  5. DESIGN RESPONSE: O’Neil encourages savvy consumption of data. Produce an original creation (examples could include: poetry, TikTok, collage, 3D sculpture, data map, or infographic, etc.) to combine critical and creative strategies to design, redesign, or interpret data. Include a brief artist’s statement or caption that explains the relationship you have illustrated. {~100 words}

Student Resources

TED Talk: The Era of Blind Faith in Big Data Must End 

In her 2017 Ted Talk, Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, illuminates algorithms.  O’Neil discusses what goes into creating algorithms and why they may not be as objective as we think, Raising questions like, how biases is unintentionally built into and perpetuated by algorithms.  O’Neil stresses the importance of transparency and integrity in the use of data. 

TED Radio Hour: Can We Trust the Numbers 

National Public Radio TED Radio Hour host Guy Raz, discusses “numbers” with Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. Raz and O’Neil, along with other experts from the field, consider inequity in data, statistics, and algorithms. 

Book Review in Scientific American 

Scientific American book review of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil.

Book Review in The New York Times 

The New York Times book review of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil.

For Parents & Families

Dear parents & families,

Your student will soon be heading off to Washington University. As a parent or family member, you are likely experiencing many of the same feelings of pride, nervousness, and excitement as your student. While you and your family savor the last few pre-University months, we are busy preparing to welcome your student to the Washington University community with many interesting and thought-provoking programs.  One such activity is the Common Reading Program.

The Common Reading Program will serve as your student’s entry into the world of academia. Before leaving home, students will read the book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil.  Your student will be challenged to think creatively and submit a response to the Common Reading Program. In doing so, incoming students will receive a taste of the exciting academic and intellectual adventures yet to come.

As part of the 18th annual Common Reading Program, students will participate in dynamic and thought-provoking small-group discussions of the book led by University faculty and staff. Additional programming events related to the themes explored in the book will continue throughout the academic year.

The Common Reading Program aims:

  • to introduce students to the spirit of inquiry and debate that is integral to the Washington University academic community.
  • to provide a common intellectual experience for incoming students, as well as participating members of the faculty and staff.
  • to provide an opportunity for students to meet and interact with a member of the Washington University faculty in an informal discussion, outside the boundaries of the classroom and formal academic requirements.

During Parent & Family Weekend, you will have the opportunity to participate in a recap of what happened during the Common Reading Program faculty-led discussions and to share your own thoughts related to the selection Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil. Members of the Washington University faculty will provide information on the program, share what transpired in their individual discussion groups and discuss their perspectives on the book. All parents & families are encouraged to attend and participate in the event. As more information about the event becomes available, it will be posted on the Parent & Family Weekend website.

Additional information about parent and family events, campus news and resources, ways you can give back to the university community and contact information can be found on the First Year Center Parent and Family Resources Website.

History

Originally named the First Year Reading Program, this initiative began in the fall of 2003 to provide first-year students a shared intellectual experience to start their academic career at WashU.  The program was re-named the Washington University Common Reading Program in spring 2017 as the program now supports discussions among first-year students, parents & families, and alumni groups around the world.


Past Book Selections

2019: Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship by Nadine Strossen 

In her book Hate, New York University Law Professor and former head of the ACLU Nadine Strossen examines whether it is possible to punish hate speech without restricting free speech as a result. Examining how historically hate speech laws have been misused to suppress dissenting opinions, she shares case studies of censorship gone awry and encourages readers to engage in “counterspeech” as their primary means of combating hate speech. 

Nadine Strossen visited campus class for a Fireside Chat with the Chancellor in Graham Chapel as part of the University’s Reflections event on the first day of class. 

2018: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

In this enchanting tale about the magic of reading and the wonder of romantic awakening, two hapless city boys are exiled to a remote mountain village for re-education during China’s infamous Cultural Revolution. There they meet the daughter of a local tailor and discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation. As they flirt with the seamstress and secretly devour these banned works, they find transit from their grim surroundings to worlds they never imagined.

2017: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Written by an eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus introduces us to the lives of young scientist Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. After entering the throes of higher education, Frankenstein becomes consumed with discovering the secret to life itself. When the Creature comes alive with a bolt of electricity one night, Shelley takes the reader on a journey of wonder and horror as Frankenstein and the Creature learn to navigate life in their small village.

Reaching its 200th year of publication in the 2017-2018 academic year, Shelley’s novel still impacts a variety of contemporary issues from biomedical ethics to otherness to popular culture.

2016: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

In this exceptional and somber work, acclaimed author and journalist for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaks through a letter to his son to explore the many—often tragic—experiences of being black in the United States of America. Coates blends elements of memoir, symbolism, and historical ruminations to convey the fear black parents feel for their children, the fragility of the black body in the face of systemic violence, and the chances of achieving substantive racial progress in the 21st century. Continuing in the seminal style of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Coates challenges the reader to observe the state of race in the US through a skeptical and critical lens, offering up the future as an ominous state of affairs for this generation to struggle with and shape.

Between the World and Me has received near universal acclaim from many, was the winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.

2015: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine ​
In this remarkable and timely work, acclaimed author and Pomona College professor, Claudia Rankine, uses poetry, essay, cultural criticism, and visual images to explore what it means to be an American citizen in a “post-racial” society. Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seeming slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV — everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society.

2014: Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino​ ​
In this remarkable and elegant work, acclaimed NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino fuses legal manifesto and poetic memoir to call for a redefinition of civil rights in our law and culture.
Everyone covers. To cover is to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. Because all of us possess stigmatized attributes, we all encounter pressure to cover in our daily lives. Given its pervasiveness, we may experience this pressure to be a simple fact of social life. Yoshino’s argument draws deeply on his personal experiences as a gay Asian American. He follows the Romantics in his belief that if a human life is described with enough particularity, the universal will speak through it. The result is a work that combines one of the most moving memoirs written in years with a landmark manifesto on the civil rights of the future.

2013: Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
In this series of forthright essays, Biss sets out to examine issues of race and identity in America through the lens of history and of family. She makes links between lynching and the spread of the telephone, both of which required tall straight poles in public places. She considers the legacy of Reconstruction in public school systems, particularly the New York City classrooms where she teaches, and questions the instruction to make her students “better people.” She remembers the white and black dolls she shared with her sister in light of the famous Doll Studies of Mamie and Kenneth Clark, and she rereads Laura Ingalls Wilder as she settles into the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.
Throughout, Biss acknowledges her own assumptions and privileges. Never hesitating to ask difficult questions and face the sometimes-embarrassing answers, she still remains hopeful about the possibilities of diversity. – Graywolf Press

2012: The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
Two kids named Wes Moore were born blocks apart within a year of each other. Both grew up fatherless in similar Baltimore neighborhoods and had difficult childhoods; both hung out on street corners with their crews; both ran into trouble with the police. How, then, did one grow up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader, while the other ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence? Wes Moore, the author of this fascinating book, sets out to answer this profound question. In alternating narratives that take readers from heart-wrenching losses to moments of surprising redemption, The Other Wes Moore tells the story of a generation of boys trying to find their way in a hostile world. (Random House, Inc.)
Author, Wes Moore visited campus and engaged with students during the day in various settings before delivering his Assembly Series lecture, which was standing room only.

2011: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
Set during the “Siege of Sarajevo” (1992-96), this forceful but quietly spoken novel puts us at the side of ordinary citizens as they venture out in the city to buy bread or refill water jugs, uncertain whether a sniper or artillery shell will make their next step their last. In memory of 22 fellow citizens killed in a single attack, a cellist, in full sight of the attackers, sends up his music for 22 days to the hills where they hide, and to the heavens.

Author, Steven Galloway visited campus and delivered the First Year Reading Program Assembly Series talk. He also met with several small groups of students to discuss the book, his life as an author, and other related topics.

2010: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
In this engaging and suspenseful novel, a young Pakistani man tells his story to an American over a meal in a Lahore marketplace. The book explores complex themes of culture, identity, profiling, coming of age, and the immigrant experience.

Political commentator, human rights lawyer, Washington University alumnus and founder of www.themuslimguy.com, Arsalan Iftikhar visited campus and participated in several sessions with students. He also delivered the First Year Reading Program Assembly Series talk.

2009: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
Author Julie Otsuka, visited campus and interacted with students in small group settings. She also gave an Assembly Series address to the campus community.

2008: Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert
Growing out of a groundbreaking three-part series in The New Yorker (which won the 2005 National Magazine Award in the Public Interest category), Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, brings the environment into focus and asks, “What, if anything, can be done to save our planet?”

2007: Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
Einstein’s Dreams is a series of vignettes set in the spring of 1905, just as Einstein was formulating his theory of relativity. Each vignette presents a vision of time that might have passed through Einstein’s mind during this period. This book challenges the reader to stretch his or her imagination about time, to question ordinary assumptions, and to consider how conceptions of time shape human understanding of ourselves and our world.
Author, Alan Lightman visited campus and had the opportunity to dine with student winners of the “Finish the Story” contest. He also addressed the campus community in an Assembly Series lecture.

2006: One Nation Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All by Mark R. Rank
In conjunction with the Danforth Campus dedication and the theme “A Higher Sense of Purpose,” One Nation Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, by Mark R. Rank was selected as the 2006 First Year Reading Program book.

Mark R. Rank is the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. He is widely recognized as one of the foremost experts and speakers in the country on issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice.

In the book, Rank examines and dissects the issue of poverty in American and shows that the fundamental causes of poverty are to be found in our economic structure and political policy failures, rather than individual shortcomings or attitudes. He demonstrates that a significant percentage of Americans will experience poverty during their adult lifetimes and suggests a new paradigm for understanding and addressing national poverty.

Professor Rank addressed students in an Assembly Series lecture.

2005: “The Achievement of Desire” from Hunger of Memory and “Poor Richard” from Brown both by Richard Rodriguez

In 2005 the First Year Reading Program Steering Group chose two works by essayist and public commentator, Richard Rodriguez. Students read Rodriguez’s book, Brown, in their Writing I Class, and had the opportunity to hear Rodriguez speak about racial and cultural assimilation in America when he came to campus in October. Many students met with Rodriguez, had dinner with him and continued the dialogue throughout his two-day visit.

2004: Freedom: A Book of Common Readings, Multiple authors
In anticipation of the 2004 election and the Presidential Candidates’ debate at Washington University, the 2004 Book of Common Readings was anchored by The Declaration of Independence, one of the most important texts in political history both within and outside the United States. Accompanying primary texts by Frederick Douglas and others stimulated critical thinking about the Declaration and its legacy in debates about liberty, equality and justice. Professor Dan Shea’s introduction to the book challenged students to “claim their education.”

2003: Washington University 150th Anniversary Celebration Book of Common Readings, Multiple authors
In 2003, Washington University celebrated its 150th anniversary. The theme of this sesquicentennial year was “Treasuring the Past, Shaping the Future.” In keeping with that theme, a group of faculty and administrators developed a book of common readings for new students focused on the history and meaning of education.

The book, consisting of essays, poems and excerpts of longer work, included pieces by Washington University founder William Greenleaf Elliot, Washington University professor Gerald Early, W.E.B. DuBois and bell hooks.

New students met in small groups with members of the faculty to discuss the book of common readings and examine their goals for their own education. The cover of the book was designed by Washington University students from the College of Art.

FAQ

What is the goal/purpose of the Common Reading Program?

The Common Reading Program aims:

  • to introduce students to the spirit of inquiry and debate that is integral to the Washington University academic community.
  • to provide a common intellectual experience for incoming students, as well as participating members of the faculty and staff.
  • to provide an opportunity for students to meet and interact with a member of the Washington University faculty in an informal discussion, outside the boundaries of the classroom and formal academic requirements.

How are the reading program books selected?

Book suggestions are collected from students, faculty, and staff and are then reviewed and narrowed down by the Common Reading Program Steering Committee. Finalists are often offered in the January Reading Program, an opt-in book discussion program open to all student levels and offered in partnership with the Congress of the South 40. Feedback is collected from students and discussion leaders participating in the January Reading Program. A Steering Committee made up of students, faculty, and staff determines the ultimate selection.


Is my participation in the Common Reading Program mandatory?

All first-year students are required to attend the small group book discussions their residential college floors. All other CRP-related events are optional, but we strongly encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities to attend and experience the myriad of offered programs.


Is the Common Reading Program an isolated event, or will there be other related activities?

Throughout the year, there will be events and activities related to the Common Reading Program. 


I lost/forgot my book. What should I do?

Copies of book will be available at Olin Library.


Who will be facilitating my discussion group? Can I select my Small Group Discussion Leader?

Your Small Group Discussion Leader will be assigned based on your residential college floor. Regrettably, we cannot allow you to change sections or request a specific discussion leader.


How will I know where to go for my Common Reading Program discussion?

The Common Reading Program staff will reach out to students in July to delineate discussion details and logistics.


What should I bring to my Common Reading Program discussion?

Please come prepared with:

  1. Your book
  2. Something to write on
  3. Something to write with
  4. An open mind

What additional resources can I use to educate myself on the themes covered in the book?

Check out the resources tab above.


If I have any other questions, who can I ask?

Contact the Common Reading Program for answers to any other questions not listed here.