What do zombies, first-year students and West Virginia University faculty have in common?

No, this is not the beginning of a bad joke; all will be participating in First-Year Seminar discussions this fall around World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. It’s the first-ever Common Read program offered at WVU.

“This program aims at getting to the root of collegiate discourse by creating a community of learners across campus,” Provost Joyce McConnell said. “The intention is to get everyone – from students to faculty to staff – talking about the same book and exploring the critical issues it raises.”

College is about critical thinking and sharing thoughts, which an academically-driven common experience fosters, McConnell said. This initiative will promote those connections, especially between first-year students and faculty.

The importance of World War Z
Many may be confused about how a book on zombies was chosen as the common read. However, the subject matter covers more than zombies; it allows students to delve into difficult questions.

“A university is a place where people should discuss big ideas, challenge one another’s ideas and come up with their own big ideas,” said Bernadette Jungblut, the executive director of academic success initiatives and the first-year experience. “This is a book about big ideas.”

The story follows the first-person narratives of people who survived a zombie war. Each person has a unique perspective about the war, and through these perspectives the book explores broad topics such as fear, politics, education, change, prejudice and human nature. It’s a way to bring challenging themes to the forefront at the beginning of a student’s academic career.

“This book is a vehicle to get students to think about things that may seem very far away from them right now,” Jungblut added. “We want our students to start considering these things now, and for the students to think about how they are going to make a positive impact on WVU and on the world.”

Students are required to read the book before their First-Year Seminar course begins. Some programs have students writing essays about the reading even before they walk into a classroom.

Regardless of how the book will be incorporated into class discussions, it can serve as a catalyst for many out-of-class encounters.

“I think it’s really beneficial for incoming freshmen to have a reading assignment before classes start,” Kyle Markle, an incoming first-year Honors College student, said. “It creates another subject for new students to talk about.”

Common Read programs
Common reading programs have been taking place at universities across the country for several years, but they have grown over the past decade. Hundreds of universities, including five of the eight Ivy League institutions, have common reading programs.

“A common read program helps provide our students enriched educational experiences, both inside and outside the classroom,” Jungblut said. The program also fits with WVU’s Project 168, which promotes student success academically, personally and professionally.

Book Selection Process
The final choice had to make it through a rigorous, multistep selection process. First, more than 50 possible books were vetted by a group of five people appointed by the Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, which narrowed the collection to five.

Then, a screening committee made up of students, First-Year Seminar instructors and representatives from schools and colleges reviewed the books. After much reading and research, the committee chose one to recommend to Provost McConnell, who made the final choice.

What’s ahead
Administrators will initially measure outcomes through student and instructor engagement.

“There is meaning in this book for all audiences,” says Katelyn Schaefer, project coordinator for the Common Read. “Because this book offers so much, we’re hoping to build a strong foundation for the Common Read program so it can keep growing.”

Students, instructors and the WVU community are invited to visit the Common Read webpages and follow the conversation on Twitter (#WVUReads).



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