Monday, May 23, 2016

Understanding the uncommon reading program at the UO

I had the really good opportunity of talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me recently at the University of Oregon (UO) with a diverse range of professors, staff members, and graduate students. Next semester, they will lead a common reading focused on Coates's book.  

At some point while preparing notes for my presentation, I mistakenly began referring to their common reading program as "the uncommon" reading program. Apparently a misreading on my part combined with my computer's overly active spellcheck led "UO common reading" becoming "Uncommon reading" in my notes.

There are no wrong notes, you sometimes hear the jazz folks say. Perhaps then, I'd find good sounds in the wrong not entirely accurate "uncommon" spelling I produced.

The good thing about my misreading was that it made me curious about what was uncommon about University of Oregon's reading program. Never mind that they in fact referred to it  as a "common" reading program. I was nonetheless searching for and identifying reasons why they were different than some of us with the standard, common reading programs.

Characteristics of an uncommon reading program:

• Early preparation -- UO was making plans for their fall program eight to nine months prior to launching the actual project. I heard about their reading project in February, which means they were giving themselves plenty of time to think through possibilities and outcomes. 

• Pre-program programming -- UO's Division of Undergraduate Studies and the university's Teaching Effectiveness Program have been coordinating workshops for those who will facilitate discussions of Coates's book. They held a reading discussion group of Between the World and Me on May 6 and more recently, on May 20, which is when I participated. They have additional workshops planned.

Academic intervention -- In order to become more enticing to prospective students and to build school pride, universities across the country have been investing more and more resources into making sure that there are all kinds of fun, non-academic activities that occur at the beginning of each new school year.* Believe it or not, books that are introduced in the first week or even on the first day of official classes are arriving to students late in the process. Consequently, UO intervenes by making sure incoming students receive copies of common reading program books during summer orientation.

A variety of book facilitators -- It's one thing to have a common reading program. It's something else, uncommon perhaps to bring a variety of faculty, staff, administrators, and graduate students together, on more than one occasion,  to talk about past experiences as well as potential opportunities and challenges for covering a particular book.    

Genuine excitement -- The coordinators possess considerable excitement concerning their reading program. They feel think that adequate preparation, programming, diverse input, and engagement with the book will matter in the lives of participants. The enthusiasm among coordinators fuels the program.

Every semester, I run common reading projects. Moving forward, I plan to steal borrow some of the approaches from UO, raising the possibilities that my projects will include some of those uncommon characteristics.

*Note: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by  Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa made me more aware of how universities increasingly foregrounded fun, non-academic activities at the beginning of the school year.

Notations for a common reading experience of Ta-Nehisi Coates

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