Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wondering about the "common read"

A group of us spent a couple of hours Friday putting copies of Three Cups of Tea into envelopes. We are mailing the book and a letter to all incoming first year students at Westminster College. We ask them to read the book before coming to campus. The book then becomes the center of a year's worth of common theme programming. (This year, our theme is The Mountains.)

In doing this we join with hundreds of other campuses who ask entering first-year students to do the same thing. I expect that their experiences are similar to ours--students have the opportunity to learn a lot related to the theme, campus benefits to some degree by having additional guest speakers, faculty get the chance to meet interesting guests, and there is some development of community as a result.

But we are also sure that many (most?) students don't read the book, or attend most of the events, or learn a great deal from the experience. Similarly, faculty and staff get some benefit, but the program can seem like one more thing on top of dozens of others. So the common read, like most other campus programming, does not reach it maximum possible benefit. And the annual analysis is whether this program is worthy of its small budget.

Part of me is fine with that. After all, the dominant way that HE works is to provide a ton of options and let students, staff, and faculty choose those options that best meet their needs and interests.

Another part of me wonders if HE ought to scale back some of its efforts, so that they have smaller, but more definite impact. With the common read, one promising (but odd) option would be to scrap the book, and instead have students read a single paragraph, or one poem, or even an aphorism. (Or you could go further, and ask students to listen to a single piece of music, or look closely at a single plant, or even a fish.)

Part of the benefit would be that all students would do it, and that by doing it, campuses could certainly have a campus-wide discussion about that thing. I am more intrigued, though, by the potential for some deep learning. In Catholic religious settings, this is called lectio divina; it is akin to koan study in Zen Buddhism. The notion is that by deep reading, meditation, and discussion over a single reading, people discover a great deal about that reading and about themselves.

Since so much of education, and so much of American culture, takes place at a superficial level, an experience of deep engagement with a small thing might be a powerful experience for students. And it would certainly be cheaper for the college...

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