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UNC asks all first-year and incoming transfer students to read a book the summer before they enroll and participate in small group discussions about it the day before classes begin. Faculty and staff lead the discussions for the voluntary, noncredit assignment.
The program aims to stimulate critical thinking outside the classroom and give new students an intellectual common ground. An academic icebreaker, it encourages the students to engage with the scholarly community and come to their own conclusions.
A nine-member selection committee of students, faculty and staff began meeting last fall to consider books for the program, now in its 12th year. They chose Picking Cotton in a unanimous vote.
The book was written by the reconciled pair, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton — both of North Carolina — with help from ghostwriter Erin Torneo.
Jennifer Thompson was 22 and a college student in 1984 when an African-American man broke into her apartment and raped her at knifepoint. Thompson, who is white, subsequently picked Cotton, then 22, out of a lineup. He went to prison on a life sentence, proclaiming his innocence.
Eleven years later, Cotton was allowed to make use of a new technology and take a DNA test; it proved that he did not commit the crime. UNC law Professor Richard Rosen ’76 (JD) was one of two lawyers who represented Cotton pro bono during this time.
Two years after his release, Cotton and Thompson-Cannino met.
Thompson-Cannino is now an activist against mistaken eyewitness identification and capital punishment.
The committee chose Picking Cotton from among 282 books cited in 428 nominations submitted by students, alumni, faculty and community members. Five other books were considered as finalists: For God and Country by James Yee; Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh; Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh by Gerald Grant; White Like Me by Tim Wise; and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.
The other books included in the program have been A Home on the Field, There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz, Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, Approaching the Qur’an by Michael Sells, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point by David Lipsky, Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (the only novel in the group) and The Death of the Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions by Sister Helen Prejean.