CLARION — Clarion University’s Common Book program will culminate on Tuesday, with an on-campus appearance by Bill McKibben, author of “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out.” McKibben’s book, a grim exploration of the threats climate change poses to the planet and future of civilization, served as the university’s inaugural common read. The author’s presentation, part of the Mary L. Seifert Cultural Series, is open to the public and will take place at 7 p.m. in Marwick-Boyd Fine Arts Center.
Though a new addition to the curricular and co-curricular programming at Clarion University, Common Book programs have a long-standing tradition at universities across the country. Reading a common book has been shown to assist in forming a bond and sense of community by providing a shared experience, especially among first-year students. That being noted, the selection of “Falter” as a common read was about more than its contemporary resonance.
“A lot of universities have this as part of their introduction to first-year students coming in. It’s sort of a bonding experience and gets them acclimated to the academic world,” said Richard Lane, an English professor and the university’s director of the Center for First Year Experience (CFYE).
During orientation incoming Clarion University students were encouraged to read “Falter” prior to their arrival on campus for the start of the fall semester. Once on campus, the book was incorporated into Welcome Week activities for first-year students, with its exploration a highlight of the Community Conversations’ discussion during the morning of Academic Day (Aug. 24).
Because participation in the Common Book program was voluntary, Lane wasn’t sure what to expect once the students arrived for Welcome Week. “We got about 250 students on the morning of Academic Day, which is a pretty big crowd. I was really pleased with that. We had faculty and staff participation, about 25 to 30 faculty and staff.”
“This year we had round tables (at Academic Day). So we had faculty and staff at each table facilitating student discussions. They talked about the book, about the ideas of the book. It was also the launch of the university’s Presidential Commission for Sustainability. So it all worked together,” reported Lane.
Following the events of Welcome Week, the university’s faculty were encouraged to incorporate applicable sections of the book into their first-year and upper-level courses or when planning student activities. The book’s content spanned the curriculum, encompassing subjects relevant to environmental issues, argument and rhetoric, information literacy, social issues, politics, economics, psychology, public health, language use, and use of the media.
Lane elaborated, “The reason we call it the Common Book is because it’s not really just for first-year students, although that’s the majority of people that will read the book. But we also encouraged its use in classes across the various majors. Climate change affects our economics, immigration, there’s political connections, it affects our health. So these are the kinds of subjects that the book can be used for.”
According to Lane, student reaction to the book was positive, but he was also surprised.
“I was amazed about how many students really never thought about climate change. A lot said they never really thought about it. So it was shocking to them about the different aspects and how dire the situation really is about climate change. But they were able to relate experiences, recycling, having steel straws or paper straws, bottled water.”
Choosing a common read, particularly one that has mass appeal, can be difficult. It has to be applicable across disciplines, consistent with expected reading levels, and relatable to a variety of audiences. “If you look at Common Book lists, they’re (the books chosen) about race or class or gender or something like that. Dealing with an issue that you might not have thought about before. But some books can be more inspirational,” noted Lane.
Based on the positive reception this semester, Lane is looking to continue the Common Book program at Clarion University in the future. Though next year’s book has yet to be decided upon, Lane does know that he would like not just the university community involved, but also the local Clarion community as well.
“The culmination of the Common Book should be to reach out to the community and have them participate. I don’t know if we do enough with that on both sides, to bring our communities together. That we’re all one community. I never want to separate the two.”