Thursday, February 22

Jasmine Aquino: Professors should incorporate common book themes in class curriculums


Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of "Between the World and Me," which has been selected as this year’s common book. (Courtesy of Montesbradley via Wikimedia Commons)

Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of "Between the World and Me," which has been selected as this year’s common book. (Courtesy of Montesbradley via Wikimedia Commons)


If you’ve been a new student at UCLA, you’ve been encouraged to read a “common book.” The UCLA common book aims to connect new incoming students – both freshmen and transfers – faster than you can judge a book by its cover.

It gives students a sure social pickup line, even if the connection is about not actually reading the book.

But it also serves a larger purpose: UCLA uses the common book to allow all students to enjoy a common story with universal themes. They can read it at their own pace in any language, including Braille, or even listen to it as an audiobook. Every student gets a copy of the book at orientation, or can pick up a copy at the First Year Experience office located on the Hill.

This year’s common book, “Between the World and Me,” is social justice activist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his adolescent son explaining the idea of race, specifically what it is like to live in a black body in the United States. The book inspires questions centered around how to deal with a fraught history about minority-group oppression and how we can resolve a seemingly never-ending conflict.

There’s a lot for a new student to glean from the book, and the FYE office does a tremendous job of incorporating the common book’s themes in student life on the Hill, including events put on by resident assistants. For example, last year the FYE office conducted an interview in Royce Hall with Roxane Gay, the author of last year’s common book, Bad Feminist.

[Related: Author Roxane Gay discusses common book ‘Bad Feminist’ at Royce Hall]

However, similar efforts are lacking off the Hill. Other campus agencies should follow the Office of Residential Life’s lead and promote these discussions in specific classrooms.

One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to incorporate common book themes into General Education cluster courses, which are specifically designed for new Bruins. Instructors in these courses should aim to include the common book themes into their curriculum. These themes help students understand diverse perspectives in respectful ways.

In fact, FYE’s website includes a teacher’s guide for integrating the common book in academic curricula, with more resources in its Covel Commons office.

In doing so, these professors can welcome a growing community or engaged leaders. The teachers guide online includes classroom activities that professors can facilitate during class meetings, or they can open discussions following suggested discussion questions listed to spark conversation between student experiences.

[Throwback: Q&A: Judd Winick shares ‘storyboards’ behind ‘Pedro and Me’]

The programs on the Hill provide a good model for how instructors could do this. They broaden the themes so that any new Bruin of any background can participate. Notably, they don’t include quiz-like questions that simply test narrative book knowledge.

Last year specifically, Residential Life also included common book discussions in its partnership with the V-Day Student Coalition for the Vagina Monologues show in the Northwest Campus Auditorium. Programs from Resident Assistants on the Hill and the On-Campus Housing Council, such as a visit from sex educator and YouTuber Laci Green, all encouraged students to share their experiences with the book or from their lives.

If UCLA aims to truly help build a community among incoming Bruins, it should make more of these kinds of efforts in its cluster courses.

There’s certainly room for the cluster courses to grow. As a first-year student at UCLA, I took “America in the 1960s,” an interdisciplinary GE cluster. The two political science professors, English professor and musicology professor who taught the cluster all touched on minority groups’ continual resistance toward oppression, but failed to even mention my class’ common book, “Never Had It Made,” the story of Jackie Robinson.

I would not be surprised if this year’s cluster professors also failed to mention this year’s book despite the themes directly relating the civil rights movement in America.

It might be difficult to add more material into an already content-packed classroom. But GE clusters take three quarters to complete, including a seminar class during spring quarter in order to receive Writing II credit. That is more than enough time – an entire academic year – to integrate the common book. And though not everyone reads it, at least integrating its themes can give new Bruins a sense of community.

The common book every year includes themes that are present and potent in modern-day life, from school to politics. As a true progressive leader, UCLA needs to build a community of cognizant leaders set to be proponents of change.

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Jasmine Aquino was an assistant Opinion editor in the 2016-2017 year. Previously, she was an Opinion and News contributor.


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