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Spring 2010  |  Return to issue home

The Common Book Conversation

The Common Book Conversation
The Common Book Conversation
Christopher Parker, left. Luis Fraga & Ralina Joseph
Christopher Parker, left. Luis Fraga & Ralina Joseph
Assistant Professor Parker led the event discussion
Assistant Professor Parker leads a discussion

Since 2006, incoming University of Washington freshmen are given a common text during summer orientation that they are expected to read before the start of fall quarter. This year’s selection is Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, an autobiographical account of his search for identity that is also a story of race and advancement in America.

The Common Book is aimed to develop a sense of community by offering students, faculty, staff and alumni a focus for conversation and social exchange. The book is incorporated into freshman seminars, Freshman Interest Groups, and writing classes. Faculty members across campus also work to include the book into their curriculum.

One such event was held on Dec. 1 at Kane Hall—A Common Book Conversation about Race, Identity and America. Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement Luis Fraga, Assistant Professor Ralina Joseph (communications) and Assistant Professor Christopher Parker (political science) led the discussion. About 750 people, including mainly first-year students, some faculty, alumni and special guests, attended the event. Dr. Fraga, Dr. Joseph and Dr. Parker led the panel discussion by each providing their own reflections on passages from the text they found most meaningful.

"Our approach was to use that as a way to interact with one another, as well as challenge each other a bit on the interpretations as a way of allowing students to see that there are many different ways to read a text," Dr. Fraga said.  

The panel discussed issues related to race and racial identity, mixed-race identity, structural racism and issues related to relationships with parents and the complexities that can arise. The panel then took questions from students in a question-and-answer session that lasted over 30 minutes.

The book held a special significance to Dr. Fraga, who received his first copy as a gift a few years ago from a former student interning in Washington D.C. Much to his surprise it included a personal inscription and autograph from then-Sen. Barack Obama. Dr. Fraga was not on the committee that made the Common Book selection, but agreed that it held great significance.

Dreams from My Father book cover

"What I thought was so magnificent about the book and selecting it as a book that all freshman students would have the opportunity to read is that it is so self-reflective," Dr. Fraga said. "It’s about taking a very honest look at yourself and using that as a way to help you decide what you want to do about your future. Add to that the fact that now Obama is the president of the United States and that he ran a campaign where hope, aspiration and expectation were all very important parts of his campaign, it seemed to me this was a magnificent opportunity for first-year university students - for this book to serve as an example of how at some point in their lives, it might be healthy for them to undergo that same sort of reflection."

Each year, The Common Book is selected by a committee of students, faculty and staff from departments across campus. The committee reviewed more than 40 books for the 2009-10 selection.

Read more about The Common Book

Photos by Mary Levin

Spring 2010  |  Return to issue home

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