Stanford’s Three Books program prompts students to think about sustainability and equity
Earth systems Professor Noah Diffenbaugh aims to engage first-year students in challenging discussions with his Three Books selections centered on sustainability and equity.
Following 13 years of tradition, Stanford’s incoming, first-year students have received a special package for the summer: three books, carefully curated by a Stanford faculty member. Their assignment is to read all three prior to New Student Orientation, which will include a panel discussion with the authors.
“In my research, I’m interested in understanding what it is about the physical climate – heat waves, drought, floods – that most impacts people and ecosystems,” said Diffenbaugh, who teaches in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “Once you begin to examine the relationship between people and the environment, it becomes clear that the big global challenges for this generation lie at the intersection of sustainability and equity – the two are inextricably linked.”
Diffenbaugh selected the books Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, BA ’11; The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert; and Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, BA ’99, MA ’00, a former Stegner Fellow in Stanford’s Creative Writing Program.
Engaging in difficult discussions
When Diffenbaugh was an incoming Stanford undergraduate, the Three Books program didn’t exist, but he and the other students in his dorm were assigned new student reading by their resident fellows. He still has that book, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, in his office.
“I definitely drew inspiration for my selections from that experience,” Diffenbaugh said. “And it happens that the author that was selected when I was an incoming student has written quite a bit about climate change and sustainability since then.”
At the heart of Diffenbaugh’s decisions regarding this year’s Three Books is the desire to encourage students to think deeply and thoughtfully about challenging issues that lack clear-cut solutions. He wants the books to help students understand that their professors aren’t always seeking a predetermined answer to their questions. Diffenbaugh also believes the ability to work through these complicated topics will benefit students far beyond their academics.
“There are larger-scale discussions going on now, not just on campus, but nationally and internationally, and one of my goals is that our students are able to engage with those in a constructive way,” he said. “These books deal with highly charged topics where there’s no obvious solution. So, how do we have a reasoned discussion that leaves space for free speech and the free flow of ideas, where people can disagree and allow their views to evolve as a result of the dialogue? That’s an ongoing challenge, and this is an opportunity to wrestle with that experience right at the outset of college.”
Beyond the fact that each book addresses difficult, timely issues, they are also unified by this year’s theme. Together, this collection shows how the realities of sustainability and equity can seem to exist in parallel but are, at their roots, intertwined.
“Homegoing and The Sixth Extinction run in parallel, with Homegoing examining the history of how people have treated each other, and The Sixth Extinction examining the history of how people have treated the rest of life on Earth,” Diffenbaugh explained. “Salvage the Bones really brings those two together and examines the ways in which environmental vulnerability is shaped by poverty and access to both material and nonmaterial resources. It also speaks to the power of human resilience, even in the face of extreme environmental conditions and extreme inequality.”
Each book also has a Stanford connection. Kolbert’s book refers many times to Stanford research, and Gyasi and Ward both studied at Stanford – Gyasi as an undergraduate, and Ward as an undergraduate and, later, a fellow.
“I think it’s very valuable for our incoming students to hear from former Stanford students who have gone out into the world outside of campus,” Diffenbaugh said. “And, with this outstanding program, we are very privileged to be able to hear from these authors not only through their work, but also in person.”
A panel featuring all three authors, moderated by Diffenbaugh, will take place at Memorial Auditorium during New Student Orientation. This panel will be simulcast at the Pigott Theater for pre-major advisors and interested staff or faculty. Students participating in online discussions on Stanford Canvas can submit topics and questions for the panel.
In August, Stanford faculty and administrators chosen by Diffenbaugh will be hosting “Three Book Chats” on Canvas for students to get a preview of academic life at Stanford.
“Some of the leading scholars on these topics are here at Stanford, and our students are very lucky to be able to engage with those scholars in addition to the authors,” Diffenbaugh said.
Descriptions of the 2017 Three Books program selections:
- Homegoing is a novel that follows the lineage of two half-sisters born in different villages in Ghana and their descendants through eight generations. It details the troubling history of slavery on both sides of the Atlantic and the lasting impacts it had on those who were taken and those who were not.
- The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History lays out the five mass extinctions that have occurred on Earth and makes a case, through science and narrative, that the sixth is now underway, caused by human activity. This was the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner in General Nonfiction.
- Salvage the Bones takes place in the 12 days immediately surrounding Hurricane Katrina, which Ward experienced firsthand. Its subjects are the Batistes, a family of five who, in advance of the storm, are already facing poverty, death of a parent, alcoholism and teenage pregnancy. This book won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction.
Diffenbaugh is also the Kimmelman Family senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and an affiliate of the Precourt Institute for Energy.
The Three Books program is made possible by the generosity of the Lamsam-Sagan Family Endowed Fund for Undergraduate Education.