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Common Read Builds Community, Connections with Shared Book

September 17, 2012

A richly illustrated book tracing centuries of change in the California landscape is this year’s Common Read, a program that connects students and faculty across disciplines by putting the same text in dozens of classrooms.

First launched in Fall 2006, the Common Read helps introduce students to academic life and strengthen UC Merced’s sense of community.

This year’s book — “A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California” by artist/naturalist Laura Cunningham — is required reading, in whole or in part, in general education and writing courses (Core 1, Writing 1 and 10). The book also is recommended reading in other first-year classes.

Tom Hothem, coordinator of the Common Read and assistant director of the Merritt Writing Program, estimated that about 2,000 students will read all or part of “A State of Change” in class.

Merced community members also are encouraged to read the book and take part in some events — such as an on-campus appearance by Cunningham Oct. 5 — that support the Common Read.

“A State of Change” calls on readers to imagine California as it was five centuries ago. It also explores how people have influenced gradual change in the state’s natural wonders.

The book displays Cunningham’s expertise in scientific illustration and paleontology and covers topics such as sustainability, ecology, geography and history.

Hothem said the text should help students better understand their environment — including the environment around UC Merced.

“We hope to give students a keener perception of our place,” Hothem said.

The Common Read is associated with the Merritt Writing Program, one of the larger academic units at UC Merced. The Merritt program takes an interdisciplinary approach in training students to convey information, express themselves and interact effectively with multiple audiences through the use of advanced skills in written and other forms of communication.

Recommendations for the Common Read are solicited months in advance. Merritt faculty and others go through that list to consider how a book might fit into classes.

Hothem said they are looking for a selection that complements both the arts and sciences.

“We want the book to be of equal interest to as many people as possible,” he said.

Previous books in the Common Read program include Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Anne Fadiman’s “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” and Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” The Common Read is just one of many life-transforming experiences at UC Merced.

Hothem said “A State of Change” was chosen for 2012-13 partly because its themes translate well across academic disciplines.

At least two dozen professors will use “A State of Change” this fall, he said. The list includes Angela Winek, a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program and School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts.

She will use the book in her Core 1 and “Writing California” courses.

“I feel that covering and referring to the Common Read in classes is important because the text provides students with a common, meaningful, UC Merced-related, literary experience,” Winek said.

David Samper, a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program and School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, will integrate the book into two writing courses. In part, he’ll ask students to critically read and evaluate a part of the text and respond in a thesis-based essay to a question or issue raised in the book.

Samper praised the program and its value to students and faculty.

“The Common Read builds community around and through a scholarly, yet accessible, format,” Samper said.