5 Life-Changing Books From My First Semester at Presidio Graduate School
The reading list at Presidio Graduate School has been truly life-changing for me. I also know I’m not the only student who feels this way. Every professor has their own style of teaching a class, and along with that their own list of preferred books to bolster a lesson. With this in mind, I acknowledge that my first-semester reading list may not be the same as it is now at PGS or what it may be next semester. This is also a sampling of the MANY books I read in my first semester (incoming students, be prepared to digest a lot of thought-provoking material).
There are some books that have remained with our school for a long time because they’re considered the best in the field (one of which I’ll mention below). Other books may be updated due to the ever-changing field of sustainability and the need to keep up with what’s relevant at any moment. I’ve made this list to showcase books I read in my first semester that had a personal impact on me and to encourage any reader, prospective student or otherwise, to read these because they may change your life as well (or they may help you get ahead in school!).
What follows are not book reviews, but rather a review of my experience reading each book. I would encourage you all to read each book and come to your own conclusions about the value of the information presented by their authors. But from my perspective, the value I’ve derived is immensely meaningful.
- Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows
When doing research on Presidio Graduate School, it becomes obvious that systems thinking is the mesh holding together our joint foundations of sustainability and social justice in our degree programs. Systems thinking has seen an increase in popularity, especially when discussing complex, global issues. A quick search reveals a multitude of positive reviews for Thinking in Systems and a chorus of others around the world who are also singing the praise of “this changed how I think too.” This book is an excellent introduction to systems thinking and processing the interconnectedness of every aspect of the world and our lived experiences. I reference “systems-thinking” or “systems-science” on an almost daily basis in conversations with business, tech, and government professionals. Donella Meadows is the rock star of system thinking and her work is worth investigating.
- The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets by Jason Hickel
This was the first book I read at PGS. I began by asking for my reading list from each of my professors a couple of months before school started. I wasn’t sure of the order in which we would be reading them and honestly, at that time I was still too shy to ask for the full curriculum because I didn’t know I had the right to do so. (Please feel free to always reach out to professors beforehand to get reading lists or curriculum, and ask them for any other suggestions they may have on material or how to succeed. They are here to help support you and you are paying to get the best education possible.) I chose this as my first book to read because the subtitle was so intriguing to me, and I was immediately hooked after the first chapter. This book completely changed how I view many things, one example of which is how world organizations like the World Bank, United Nations, and others measure the success of their goals.
- Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America by Tim Wise
In our course affectionately known as SSSJ (or Systems, Sustainability, and Social Justice), we were given the assignment to do group book reviews, where each group would choose a book to read and later present our findings to the rest of the class. Shortly after selecting this book, I learned Tim Wise was living in Nashville, TN, a city I had known as home for 15 years. He became a kind of home-town hero for me while I was reading this book. I found Under the Affluence to contain a plethora of useful data for breaking down arguments against funneling societies’ money to the wealthiest, among many other social arguments. I have filled the margins of this book with notes, and half of it may or may not be highlighted. On more occasions than I can count, I have pulled out this book to reference data listed either for school projects or for personal conversations. 10/10 would read again.
- Damned Lies and Statistics by Joel Best
Another perennial book read at PGS is Damned Lies and Statistics. This book seems perhaps more relevant than it ever has been, due to the increase of disinformation and bad data presented daily on social media, and how this bad data is affecting how our world is run. This book marks the beginning of my love affair with researching the use of bad data in relation to climate change mitigation initiatives. I’ve never considered myself a math person but instead a creative, and I have to admit to feeling very challenged by our Data and Finance classes, but it’s books like this one that help me fall in love with numbers and the importance of becoming numerate. This book is all about teaching us to strengthen our critical thinking muscles. Also, this book is highly engaging because Joel Best is a professor of sociology and criminal justice, which makes many of his data examples read more like a true-crime novel than a mathematics textbook.
- Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor by Virginia Eubanks
I read this book at the beginning of the semester even though it was the last required reading in our Data Literacy course. Pro tip: read every book that is required last in your class early in the semester. Why? This will help save you stress when final projects, papers, and presentations are due in what seems like a mountain of deadlines. Reading can take more time than we sometimes want it to, and reading can be even harder to focus on when we feel the pressure of other deadlines. By knocking out your last books alongside your first books, usually when the workload hasn’t fully increased yet, since everyone is in an introductory grace period with the course, will save you heaps of time later down the line. Please be sure to take notes to ensure key elements and lessons from the reading are not forgotten, and when it’s time to do so they can be easily recalled. A quick note about this book, it’s a major page-turner. This book drives home the dangers of relying on the future of technology, and its programmers, to determine what is equitable in our society. We must continue to be aware of how injustice can still permeate the tools we are using to try to be “efficient” in our society.
I read 20+ books in my first semester, which was a feat I had never imagined I was capable of achieving. I hope this has been a helpful glimpse into the reading process of a first-semester graduate student. I also hope it encourages a sense of curiosity in those of you who have been kind enough to take the time and read this article. I would also love to hear any thoughts or critiques on each book if you have already read them, or if you choose to return to this article and leave a review.
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