The Office of First Year Initiatives (FYI) helps new and transfer students develop the skills, connections and knowledge base critical to successful transition to UofL and persistence to degree completion. Book-in-Common is one of the pillar programs through which FYI engages and supports our new students, even as we extend the conversation to include our larger campus and local communities.
In his article for AAC&U’s Peer Review, Ferguson (2006) notes that “common reading programs of all types are helping bridge divides on campus: between disciplines, between student life and academic affairs, between the orientation period and the first semester.” We also observe that a common reading helps bridge the gap between student and faculty experiences and perspectives, offering a common ground from which to begin conversation and connection.
As they begin their university experience at UofL, our incoming students are navigating questions of transition, adjustment, expectations, community, acceptance, identity, diversity, culture, decision-making and life goals. UofL’s Book-in-Common should speak to one or more of these themes, support critical inquiry from a variety of perspectives and provide opportunities for community engagement.
Kegan’s Bridge Metaphor (1982), the work of psychologist Robert Kegan coupled with research on student success and development, undergirds the theoretical framework through which our practice and approach is informed. Simply stated, as educators it is important to understand how students make meaning and then to situate the learning in their experience in order to provide the appropriate level of challenge and support. Additionally, we draw on Dewey’s (1916) ideas of active learning to help frame how, as a program, BinC can engage students in experience, reflection, integration, and application around complex problems relevant to their everyday lives.
By infusing the book (or even an excerpt) into courses across disciplines and then by coupling that classroom engagement with co-curricular programming, the selected text serves as a springboard for learning and critical inquiry about its related themes and issues. This shared experience also provides a vehicle through which students can meaningfully connect with faculty, staff, other students and community members.
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Learning Outcomes for Book-in-Common
The acronym CAPS describes the four areas of student involvement that, when meaningfully incorporated into a student’s university experience, can lead to increased success, a qualitatively improved student experience and persistence to degree completion:
- Civic: Students will engage with the university and local communities (inside and outside the classroom, on campus and off) in activities related to the BinC.
- Academic: Through interdisciplinary exploration, students will investigate key concepts, themes and complex issues raised in the text, thus furthering their critical thinking skills.
- Personal: Students will learn more about themselves and the world around them as they explore diverse ways of thinking and being.
- Social: Students will make meaningful connections with faculty, staff, students and community members.
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Connecting Book-in-Common to University-wide Initiatives
In addition to promoting the university mission of intellectual and cultural development, FYI approaches text selection and programming with a commitment to achieving objectives that parallel and infuse major university priorities and initiatives. Book-in-Common is a key strategy for
- infusing i2a and the Paul-Elder critical thinking framework into students’ in-class and out-of-class experiences.
- supporting community engagement initiatives.
- promoting engaged teaching and learning.
- demonstrating participation in the President’s Vision for Diversity and unit-specific diversity plans.
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Where are we now?
Incoming students purchased the Book-in-Common during New Student Orientation. Students are expected to read the book over the summer and can anticipate engaging with the book when they arrive on campus. On the Friday of Welcome Week, faculty/staff and upperclass students lead book discussions for first year students. We continue into the academic year with numerous co-curricular events, including monthly Conversation Café book discussions which tease out a theme from the book and provide a facilitated discussion around that topic. The key fall event is always our author visit, which this year also included a focused afternoon of service related to the text.
The Book-in-Common service initiative is one way our program has facilitated tremendous positive growth and student engagement. This co-curricular aspect of BinC began with “The Other Wes Moore” and we plan to continue a community engagement focus with subsequent texts. With help from campus and community partners, we have focused on addressing educational attainment and equity in our community and have worked to connect students with one-time and ongoing service opportunities related to those themes. That initiative helps demonstrate our university’s commitment to service from new students’ first university experiences, provides a real-world context to explore themes and issues in the text, helps meet identified needs within the community, supports current university partnerships and helps our students more easily engage in service.
Since our common reading began in 2006, we have seen a rapid increase in campus-wide collaboration for out-of-class events and continue to work to place the book in academic curricula. Classroom integration is essential for maximal achievement of the goals and outcomes associated with this initiative, so it is an area of continued emphasis for the program. To that end, FYI now creates comprehensive Instructor’s and Facilitation Guides for faculty, staff and community partners to help make integration less time-consuming, to support work with i2a critical thinking initiatives, and to provide strategies for active and collaborative learning inside and outside the classroom.
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Text Selection: Criteria for Consideration
Text selection is a challenging task that requires the consideration of many factors. These are the factors to consider as we narrow the field and make a final choice:
- Relatability: Are the characters and themes relatable to our students, particularly as they transition from high school to college?
- Readability: Does the book draw the reader in (especially first year students)? Does it keep their attention until the end of the book? Does it appeal to a wide audience?
- Critical Thinking (i2a): Does the text promote critical thinking and discussion about diverse ways of thinking and being, assumptions and beliefs, point of view?
- Integration: How widely/easily can this text be used across disciplines, curricula and orientation courses?
- Programming: Does the book allow for ample opportunities to plan engaging programs that will help us explore and learn more about the issues in the text? Examples: Conversation Café book discussions, lectures, related films/documentaries, partnerships with academic units, etc.
- Community Engagement: Are there opportunities to connect with community agencies in meaningful ways around themes/issues related to the text? Strong existing partnerships? New programs in the works? Possibilities with Signature Partners?
- Quality of the text: Is it well written?
- Feasibility: Is the book relatively short (<400 pages)? Is it in paperback? Is the author available/affordable?
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