Aug. 22, 2006

Across campus, everyone was talking about 'Gatsby,' including new couple in town

Like many of the 16 new Cornell students in the room with her, Robin Davisson first read "The Great Gatsby" in high school. On re-reading the book, she found she had something in common with the students, as well as with F. Scott Fitzgerald's narrator, Nick Carraway.

"I'm from Iowa, and I was struck this time by feeling like Nick, coming from the Midwest to a new place," Davisson, a professor of biomedical sciences, told students during a small-group discussion of the book in Uris Hall on Aug.21.

A quick roll call of the students' places of origin revealed a shared outsider status; they were from Minnesota ("Just like Nick, right?" Davisson said), and other states and from as far away as China.

Their 90-minute discussion of "Gatsby" was one of many held across campus for more than 3,000 incoming freshmen and transfer students as part of the New Student Reading Project.

Davisson and her husband, Cornell President David Skorton, were among more than 200 faculty members and administrators acting as facilitators at the sessions.

Seated with his small group around a table in Goldwin Smith Hall, Skorton led a discussion on some of the study questions that the students are choosing for essay topics, ranging from Nick's "apparent ambivalence" toward the rich Gatsby to the broader issues of class and social responsibility.

"Who wouldn't want to live a life of doing nothing every day and fabulous parties?" Skorton asked. "But it's an empty life, a hollow life."

Davisson talked with her group about the author's life as it related to the novel and about Zelda Sayre, later Zelda Fitzgerald -- the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan in "Gatsby. "

"This time, I didn't like Daisy all that much -- not at all," said Julie Zhang, a first-year architecture student from Kansas. "She's pleasant, but maybe a little fake."

Davisson brought chocolate ice cream from Cornell Dairy for her group. She also brought a copy of Carol Kammen's book, "Cornell: Glorious to View," to provide a glimpse of life at Cornell during Gatsby's time, the Prohibition era.

Skorton wrapped up his session by asking the students about Move-In Day. "I'm very interested in your opinions," he said, encouraging them to contact him with their concerns.

"It was very fun and very interesting," said Alexander Yuan, a freshman in the College of Engineering from Syosset, N.Y., after the session. "It was incredible to walk in and see the president of the university sitting there. He had a lot of insights."