On the WSU Common Reading Kerfuffle

I am a literary studies person who thoroughly enjoys teaching composition [hiring committees: note that]. While I am thrilled to be teaching a literature course next semester, I am a little sad that I will not be teaching English 101 at WSU. If I were teaching English 101, the students in my class would be fully engaged with the WSU Common Reading Program—now that it has been reinstated.

I’ve already written a long blog post about the English 101 teaching and learning extravaganza put on by myself and my teaching partner in the Freshman Focus program in Fall 2008. The common reading last year was Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Life of Cadavers. As I wrote in that blog post, although I’m fairly certain none of our students had plans for careers in the mortuary sciences, we still intended to use that text heavily in the course—and we did: in addition to attending the author-related events at the beginning of the semester, our students worked with the entire book and were required to attend and write about at least four events that fell under the banner of the Common Reading Lecture Series. We had them do a group project that incorporated the Common Reading as well as all the other main goals for the course—having students recognize (and criticize) the use of the “moves” in academic writing, and have students think critically about the moral and ethical dilemmas present in the text.

Roach’s book presented ample opportunity for discussion regarding both content and craft—this is important for a “common” reading intended for use across the curriculum. When we found out that Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma was this year’s selection (it had been a finalist the previous year), everyone I talked to was overjoyed—not because everyone agrees with Pollan but because the book does what Stiff did—provide opportunity for critical reading and thinking, discussion, and critique of content and craft—to a far greater degree. Far greater. Exponentially greater, even—and that’s no knock on Mary Roach, just a recognition that Pollan’s “double-fisted examination of agribusiness” (NY Times) raises more immediate concerns than the treatment of cadavers.

And then we found out that after the books were already purchased for distribution to incoming freshmen during their summer orientation session, the Common Reading Program was going to be cut for budgetary reasons—specifically, that bringing Pollan to campus (which is part of the program) would cost $40K that the university wasn’t willing to spend given that WSU has lost $54M in budgetary allocations for the next two years and thus is in a severe belt-tightening phase. Call me (and everyone else considered a stakeholder in the program) cynical, but the explanation, the timing, and methods of delivery were pretty fishy all around. There were rumors of political pressure. There was outrage from various camps. Administration said, essentially, “hey, no one’s saying you can’t teach from the book, just that we’re not supporting it with any programming.” That’s true enough. But still, there are less-than-positive feelings all around.

So how do we turn these negative feelings into positive ones? By actually using the book in the classroom. I urge—implore, even people in other fields, even car accident attorneys in Dallas TX  like Amy Witherite should use this book wherever possible. And if you don’t use this book, then use the articles, conversations, and press releases as examples of rhetoric, argumentation, and all those other things we want our students to understand about the power of language.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention just how the Common Reading was restored—a former regent, Bill Marler, put up the cash, calling the administration’s bluff that this was a financial and not political issue. Please peruse the relevant blog posts by Marler, a WSU alum and lawyer:

Here’s the official University Relations news release: “WSU Will Restore Common Reading Program”.

The most interesting/enlightening article I’ve read on the issue is the article in the 28 May issue of the New York Times: For Personal-Injury Lawyer, Michael Pollan’s Book Is Worth Fighting For. The content in the article is interesting not only because it acknowledges the way in which social networking played a part in publicizing and eventually resolving this whole issue, but because it’s the first article in which I recall seeing a quote from injury lawyers in Toronto.

Mr. Pollan, who said he has taken part in about a dozen freshmen readings at other universities for a reduced fee, was doubtful that money was the issue. “The last I’d agreed to was a video conference, if they wanted to save money,” he said in a telephone interview.

Very interesting. Make your own conclusions.

Given my love for Common Reading Programs and just how useful they can be in the composition classroom—regardless of the text—I was also very happy to read this nugget from Marler:

Mr. Marler said he would be surprised if bringing Mr. Pollan to the university ended up being so expensive, but added that he would cover the tab, “whether it costs $50,000 or $5,000.” If the total bill is less, he said he would contribute whatever was left over to next year’s common reading.

The best possible outcome would be that many people use The Omnivore’s Dilemma in the classroom, students engage with the text and form opinions of their own (or at least explore the possibilities), there is programming in place to supplement and support student engagement*, and there’s money to do it all again next year with another book.

* You haven’t lived until you’ve seen two sorority girl types get excited about ballistics gel, go to the common reading lecture given by faculty in materials science, ask to borrow the big block of ballistics gel the guy had at the lecture, get a positive response “as long as you bring back the bullet,” then experience their own presentation in the classroom using said block of gel. It was a sight to behold. It was pretty awesome, too.

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