Q & A with Frank Wcislo on Half the Sky at Vanderbilt University

Posted on August 15, 2012, by Lizzie Presser, Half the Sky Movement

This summer, Vanderbilt University assigned its 1600 incoming freshman Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide as summer reading. Faculty members have been posting videos of their impressions of the book on their Commons Reading webpage to get the conversation rolling. And Nicholas and Sheryl are both scheduled to speak at Vanderbilt this coming school year.

I chatted with Dean Frank Wcislo who helped choose Half the Sky and held a seminar on teaching the book last year. Read our Q & A below to learn more about the dean's vision for the book's impact on the student body.

Dean Frank Wcislo speaks with his freshman students at Vanderbilt University.

Q: What inspired you to make Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity a common read at Vanderbilt?

Dean Wcislo: We chose Half the Sky because it raised serious contemporary issues that were global in perspective and important to us. It raised a set of issues that plainly resonate with a generation that is interested in non-profit work, volunteer work and microfinance.

At the same time, it takes a very serious set of issues, and while it does say there are a set of solutions, it also makes it pretty clear that these problems are complex and thus don’t warrant any one simple solution. The book cannot be read in black or white terms. This was what we were looking for. To succeed [at Vanderbilt], you have to be a synthetic thinker. We try to use this book as a way, without being forceful or heavy handed, of setting down those sorts of standards.

Q: You held a freshman seminar course last year specifically about how to teach Half the Sky. What did you learn?

Dean Wcislo: We used the course as a testing board. The pitch was: you are second semester, first year students and we want fifteen of you to come sit with two faculty members about teaching this book to first year students.

We became interested mainly in the question: How do we make these issues relevant to Vanderbilt students? We held one session with a halfway house Thistle Farms. It’s a non-profit open to women who are recovering from prostitution and gaining new job skills and leaving the streets.

When they came to talk to our class, it was a revolution: This book is a call to action. I don’t know how we could just stand by and do nothing having read the book and then having heard these women from Thistle Farms. I’m not naïve enough to think all [the students] are going to get involved in social work or in non-profits. But they certainly found themselves in the matrix of theory and practice.

Q: What kind of an effect do you hope this book will have on your student body?

Dean Wcislo: I would think we would see more examples of student activism about sex trafficking, forced prostitution, and other [issues] as a reaction to the global themes of Half the Sky. We hope it will encourage a conversation that gets started with freshman but then really percolates across campus the rest of the year.

Q: Why are you confident that this book will inspire more activism?

The thing is, for a significant number of American students who qualify to apply to Vanderbilt, the experiences found in Half the Sky are utterly unknown and alien. And if they exist at all they exist out there, in those places.

But the conditions described “out there” are also here. If they are found here, the connectivity is there. This is what the book is so good at conveying. Then [the students] start thinking about the global connectivity. Then they start thinking about the leadership opportunities. And then they begin to feel the debt that fortune and circumstances have imposed on them.

We are telling them that we want them to be leaders in the nation and the world. “Leader” may just mean trying to figure out how to address questions raised by a book like this.

Learn more about Dean Wcislo's students' reactions to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and apply to be a Half the Sky Movement Campus Ambassador.