Impressive reading initiative from the University of Canberra

How proud am I? Not that I had anything to do with it, but the University of Canberra, in my city, has launched an inspiring initiative which it calls the UC Book Project. This is a project whereby every student (yes every student) who commences a course (yes any course) at the University of Canberra in 2013 will be given the same book, in print or electronic form, and will be required (yes required) to read it!

The aim of the project is, according to the University’s website, “to enhance the first-year experience of students, increase their knowledge of contemporary and global issues, and foster a sense of community among students”.

Have you ever heard of such a thing? I hadn’t, but apparently, according to the project’s major proponent Professor Nick Klomp*, many universities around the world have a “freshman or common reading program”. How can a university manage to ensure that every student in every course read one particular book? Well, the website says that:

Different courses will incorporate the concepts and content of the book in different ways, and there are several activities planned for the year for which students will need to have read the book.

The University will also encourage students to engage in an online discussion about the book. Anyone will be able to read the discussion but only staff and students will be able to post comments. Fair enough.

Ok, so what’s the project’s inaugural book? Just wait, it’s coming, but first I want to tell you that it was selected by a panel comprising Deputy Vice Chancellor Nick Klomp, Professor of Arts and Humanities Jen Webb, Director-General of the National Library of Australia Anne-Marie Schirtlich, Patron of the National Year of Reading William McInnes, and local award-winning author (whom I’ve reviewed twice in this blog) Nigel Featherstone. What fun they must have had trying to choose one book!

Anyhow, enough rabbiting on. It’s time to tell you the book: Craig Silvey‘s Jasper Jones. This Western Australian novel made quite a splash when it was published in 2009 and is, I think, a great fit for the purpose. It’s readable and not too long; it has a good plot that draws you along, and some wonderful dialogue; it’s a coming-of-age novel but is not specifically young adult; and, without it or me being crass, it ticks some boxes relating to multicultural and indigenous Australia. In a word, it’s real in a way that should appeal to a wide range of students. I read and reviewed Jasper Jones here (early in my blogging career).

Congratulations to the University of Canberra for a truly wonderful initiative and many thanks to Nigel Featherstone for bringing it to my attention. I can’t believe how hard Nigel works for literature in the ACT region (and Australia) while still managing to write himself. I dips me lid to ‘im!

* And, readers, would you believe that Professor Klomp is a scientist!? I dips me lid to ‘im too!

27 thoughts on “Impressive reading initiative from the University of Canberra

  1. I want to say some uni in Melbourne started doing this a few years ago – maybe when Uni of Melbourne revamped itself it introduced it? I have vague memories of The Secret River being chosen as their first book.

    But yes, it’s a great thing. Something I wish the ANU did.

      • Thanks Matthew … I hadn’t heard of that. I wonder if they “required” students to read it or “encouraged”? And, I wonder what happened this year? Did it not happen? Did they not get funding? It would be interesting to know wouldn’t it? The secret river is a good choice – especially for Sydney, and I of course like the fact that they chose a woman author – but I think Jasper Jones is probably a better choice for the purpose? Do you have thoughts on that?

        • From a purely taste perspective, I think The Secret River is a much better book than Jasper Jones … but I understand why it’s probably a better choice for getting all first-years to read. Keep it simple and engaging, preferably with young(ish) protagonists to lure them in, I guess. And now I’m trying to think of other options.

  2. Thanks Matt … yes, I pretty much agree. It’s pretty traditional in story and style but that makes it readable and good for the purpose. I’d love to know what else they considered.

    • Apparently a few do it, Debbie … But I wonder how many sustain it. I think it’s a particularly good idea in Australiia where our degrees are more specialised … Science, economics, engineering etc degrees don’t tend to touch humanities. We have no notion really of a liberal arts degree … This would go someway towards broadening people’s horizons. I hope they do a good assessment at the end and tweak, if there are challenges, rather than drop as sounds like might have occurred at Sydney Uni.

  3. Some US colleges have done a version of this, mostly liberal arts ones I think. Then they have discussion of it structured into the freshman orientation week before classes start. I think it is a fine idea.

  4. Yes, many universities and colleges in the U.S. have a common reading program. I have taught at 4 American universities, and 3 of them have a common reading program for first-year students. The way that it works at my current uni is that all of the first-year students are sent a free copy of the book during the summer before they begin their studies. During orientation week, all first-year students meet in groups of 20 with a faculty member for 2 hours to discuss the book. The students are also required to write an essay on the chosen text, plus faculty in all departments are encouraged to incorporate the text into their courses, which of course is not always possible. I led one of the discussion groups this year, which was a lot of fun. Of course, the publishers love the programs too, because they can potentially sell tens of thousands of copies.

    • Oh welcome Nathanael and thanks so much for explaining how you’ve seen it work. That sounds wonderful. I guess it takes a lot of skill from teachers to encourage the mix of students they’d get … and it sounds like it would be a great way for students to meet other students. I’d love to know some of the books you’ve seen this done with.

      And yes, I was thinking the Allen and Unwin (Jasper Jones’ publisher) will be thrilled. They’re a long standing Aussie publisher so it’s good to see them get this prize (and of course the author!)

      • This year the book was The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, which is non-fiction. I teach at a liberal arts university, so the faculty are used to having a mix of students from different fields, but it does take a certain amount of skill.

  5. My alma mater, Sydney Uni did this a couple of years ago, I presume they still do. I think it’s a brilliant idea, particularly if it’s followed up with opportunities for discussion and further thought and cross discipline interactions.

  6. Dear Sir/Madam Unfortunately I don’t know your name, but I’ve been subscribing to your blog for a couple of weeks now. A few editions ago you supplied details of literary competitions and invited readers to submit details of any publishers who might run similar contests, so I’d like to draw your attention to Catchfire Press in Newcastle, which has just published a short story of mine, Just the Gypsy in Her Soul in an anthology called Animal Encounters. Their prime purpose is to encourage local writers, or, in my case, stories from writers who lived in the Hunter Valley once upon a time. If you Google Catchfire Press you’ll find a wealth of information on their web site and you’ll also learn that they are affiliated with the University of Newcastle and that they commenced book publication in 1998. Thank you for your blog, I enjoy the information it supplies very much. Warmest wishes Wendy Borchers

    Date: Sat, 1 Dec 2012 11:04:31 +0000 To:

    • Welcome Wendy … your name is well known to me from your years of work (I will email you separately). How nice to see you pop up here. I sure will check out Catchfire Press and congratulations on having a short story published. There’s some great things happening at university presses … that in itself might be worth its own post.

  7. Not only do many US universities have a common read at the beginning of the academic year but so do many cities at different times of the year. They often invite the author to particpate in the festivities. I introduced a summer read at my international school seven years ago with Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine and we skyped with her. For the last two years we’ve had the authors visit – Andy Mulligan and James Roy.

    • That’s great Glenda … there’s nothing like meeting an author, at least an articulate one (the reclusive ones are not cut out for such things are they?) I expect/hope the same will happen with Craig Silvey who wrote Jasper Jones.

  8. Your excitement over this program is wonderful. There are a number of US universities that do this, though I can’t think of them at the moment. I think it is a neat idea and would have loved to have something like it back when I was in college.

  9. Sounds like a very cool initiative. I wonder if it’s ever happened in Italy? I’m still trying to get my uni-age sons to read Patrick White.. Though they have read a lot of my other proposals thank goodness. Often heard in this house, Have you got any good books to read Mum? Music to these ears.

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