Question: What do all 4,200 first-year students have in common?
Answer: They all received free copies of Sierra Leone native Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier as part of the community-wide One Community, One Book reading project.
With support from the University’s Office of the Provost, the UI Center for Human Rights, which organizes the annual project, provided students with this year’s book selection.
“This is a great example of a community project joining forces with a campus initiative to involve students in the community,” says Downing Thomas, center director and interim associate provost. “It also creates a common experience for undergraduates that will allow them to better know the community in which they live.”
First-year students, especially those from smaller towns, may need some time to settle into campus life. University officials hope this initiative will help students find common ground with each other and with the community. There will be a variety of campus and community activities—from film screenings to a presentation by the author—and the book will be used in rhetoric classes.
“Rhetoric provides a shared academic experience for most new undergraduates, so when the University decided to involve them in the One Community, One Book project, rhetoric was an obvious place to turn,” says rhetoric department chair Dennis Moore. “Our courses integrate reading, writing, speaking, and listening by studying the rhetoric of public controversies, so Beah’s book fits right in.”
Other departments incorporating the book into some course curricula include international studies, history, geography, library science, and social work.
Parents can share in their students’ experience by reading the book and discussing with them questions posted at www.uichr.org. They also can attend the author’s presentation, community forums, and other related events. [Check the web site above for event details.]
“I think the book can promote good discussion between parents and students in ways that we can’t measure,” says Pat Schnack, a retired teacher who volunteers as project cochair. “In my experience with books and discussions, all you need to do is get a good book, and students will want to talk about it. It could lead to discussions about a lot of other things.”
The book is not without controversy—some critics have questioned the timing of events as chronicled in the book by Beah.
“Controversies abound in every subject and are an integral part of what learning is all about,” Thomas says. “The best way to deal with controversies at a university is to teach through them, not avoid them.”
By reading this book, UI students are participating in an eight-year-old countywide book club that examines human rights issues. The project’s human rights theme and extensive campus involvement sets it apart from similar community-wide reading projects across the country.
“The University is only one of a few universities of its size that is doing a common-book program on this scale,” says vice provost Tom Rocklin, whose office funded a special printing of the book and part of the salary of a project staff member. “This project also is a significant step toward fulfilling the education goals of undergrads. It brings an international perspective to big issues.”
Center for Human Rights founders Dorothy Paul and Burns Weston started the reading project in 2001, aiming to bring together Johnson County adults and adolescents to discuss the same human rights–related text.
“Choosing books with a human rights theme brings to light issues some people may not have realized existed,” says Joan Nashelsky, who cochairs the project. “Humanitarian issues aren’t necessarily the same as human rights issues.”
About 30 people are on the book selection committee, which consists of University staff and faculty, local librarians, a member of the Iowa City Human Rights Commission, and bookstore owners. Past selections include The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka.
The committee juggles several considerations when naming a book for the year: Is it too gender-specific? Is it available in formats other than hardcover? Does it appeal to different age groups?
“My biggest consideration is: Will it draw people in and just be a good read? Will people pick it up, and get caught up and engrossed in it?” says Schnack. “I want the book to grab people, whether they are good readers or not.”
by Po Li Loo