Freshmen Reading Engagement Experience

The Freshmen Reading Engagement Experience (FREE) is a program developed to introduce freshmen composition students into textual analysis as a way to not only better expand their horizons and understand the world around them, but also examine their own writing more critically.

Past Books

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is the true story of “human computers” who worked for NASA during the space race. Specifically, it follows the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African-American women who faced discrimination based on both their race and sex.

Unlike our two previous selections, Hidden Figures is a nonfiction piece. The film of the same name shined extra light on the book, which reached number one on the New York Times Non-Fiction Best Sellers list. It also was the recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction in 2017.

Margot Lee Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly

Margot Lee was born in 1969 in Hampton, Virginia. Her father worked as a research scientist at NASA-Langley Research Center, and her mother was an English professor at the historically black Hampton University. Lee grew up knowing many African-American families with members who worked at NASA. She attended Phoebus High School and graduated from the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce.

After college, Lee moved to New York and worked several years in investment banking: first on the Foreign Exchange trading desk at J.P. Morgan, then on Merrill Lynch’s Fixed Income Capital Markets desk. She shifted to the media industry, working at a variety of startup ventures, including the HBO-funded website She married writer Aran Shetterly.

In 2005, the Shetterlys moved to Mexico to found an English-language magazine called Inside Mexico. Directed to the numerous English-speaking expats in the country, it operated until 2009. From 2010 through 2013, the couple worked as content marketing and editorial consultants to the Mexican tourism industry.

Shetterly began researching and writing Hidden Figures in 2010. In 2014, she sold the film rights to the book to William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, and it was optioned by Donna Gigliotti of Levantine Films. The Fox 2000 feature film was released in 2016, and stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Kevin Costner.

In 2013, Shetterly founded The Human Computer Project, an organization whose mission is to archive the work of all of the women who worked as computers and mathematicians in the early days of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Bio from Wikipedia

Hidden Figures Reactions

Hidden Figures Reactions is a series of short essays written by faculty and students responding to Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures.

Humanities Symposia

The fall 2017 Humanities Symposia featured two presentations related to Hidden Figures. Below is the schedule of talks this semester related to the novel.

  • Tuesday, October 17 – 3:30 pm
    Real Genius Women
    Presented by Dr. Cassandra Bausman

    Part of the celebration of FREE’s Hidden Figures, this talk will consider the 1985 cult-classic Real Genius – a gem of the teen college comedy genre featuring STEM-heroes – through an unexpected, but fruitful, feminist lens.
    Watch the Presentation
  • Tuesday, November 14 – 3:30 pm
    Hidden Figures and Trine
    Presented by Dr. Alison Witte

    In exploring the issues raised by Hidden Figures, Dr. Witte’s composition courses will learn about women in STEM from Trine alumni. Come to hear about the insights from this research project and its implications for future Trine graduates.
    Watch the Presentation


  • NASA chief Charles Bolden recalls the historic trajectory of the “human computer”
    One of the biggest challenges to historically recording marginalized groups is just not recording their story from their own perspective, but from those around them to get a more complete picture. In this Vanity Fair piece, NASA chief Charles Bolden recalls Katherine Johnson and her contributions to the Apollo program.
  • Putting their struggle in context
    It can be challenging for students today to understand the struggle of African-Americans at the time of the book. The award winning POBS documentary Eyes on the Prize does an excellent job of explaining the Civil Rights movement that parallels the book.

The Film

Released in 2016, the Hidden Figures film adaptation stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe in a much more condensed version of the book’s timeline.