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William & Mary launches first common book for freshmen


When you’re more than 300 years old, it isn’t easy to celebrate your first anything. But this summer, William & Mary sent out its first common book, Oliver Sacks’ Island of the Colorblind, to all 1,522 incoming freshmen.

“There are faculty out there who have been talking about a common book as a good idea for a number of years, but actually coordinating it is more than any single faculty member could achieve,” explained Lu Ann Homza, dean for educational policy.

But the timing was right with the adoption of the new general education curriculum (COLL), which rolled out last month, she said. “We thought that if we are rededicating our general education curriculum to the liberal arts and sciences – in a very public way – wouldn't it be appropriate to give freshmen a book that demonstrates or exemplifies the liberal arts?”

The Dean's Office chose Island of the Colorblind. Initially, the deans investigated public lists of common books other universities have assigned. But they wanted something unique to William & Mary and turned to neurologist and author Oliver Sacks.

“This title grabbed our attention because he is simultaneously a physician, a botanist, an anthropologist, a cultural studies scholar, a literary scholar, etcetera,” she said. “He has a variety of hats that he puts on and takes off, all in the quest of learning more about what he's seeing and what he's experiencing.”

Specifically, Sacks visited the Micronesian islands of Pingelap and Pohnpei to investigate high rates of congenital achromatopsia, or total and complete colorblindness. But it will not surprise anyone familiar with Sacks’ work that his travelogue winds up being as much about the islands’ history, society and culture – and Sacks’ intellectual and emotional responses – as it is about the plight of his patients.

“Encompassing medicine, the natural world, culture and human connections, Sacks’ investigation provides a compelling example of the liberal arts in practice,” wrote Kate Conley, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, in a letter to students distributed along with the book.

Once the four Ewell Hall deans under Conley read and approved the book, staff in the Dean's Office began coordinating its release. The first task was contacting publisher Vintage Books to make sure there were enough copies in the country.

There weren’t. Vintage had to do a new print run before there were.

With the books delivered, a mailing house inserted a copy of Conley’s letter in each and sent it out to incoming freshmen all over the world. A number were also distributed throughout the campus. All told, the effort cost more than $18,000, all of which was borne by the Hunter J. Smith endowment.

Subsequently, Sharon Zuber, Writing Resources Center director, and Paul Showalter, Swem’s coordinator of instruction and assessment, reworked all of their examples in the new student orientation workshop on proper documentation to those found in Island of the Colorblind.

“It was very exciting,” Zuber said. “In the past, we used examples, trying to help students understand about documentation, but the examples are so out of context, it’s hard for them to understand if it’s an appropriate summary. I took the new examples from page six – I figured everybody had read at least that far – so students have a context for the example.”

Zuber said she is also modifying the syllabus of her COLL 150 course, “Writers about Writing,” to include Island of the Colorblind in the section dealing with scientific writers. She is one of a number of faculty members working Sacks’ book into their courses.

Across campus, the William & Mary First-Year Experience blog hosted 16 different blog posts with thoughts on the book, many written by Center for the Liberal Arts Fellows.

First Year Experience Director Lauren Garrett also linked incoming students to the book via the Tribe Guide website, providing the first intimation to freshmen that William & Mary was sending a common book.

Garrett said she encouraged orientation student leaders to use Island of the Colorblind as a touchstone for connection with incoming freshmen. She saw many new students talking about it on the Class of 2019 Facebook page even before they arrived.

“There was a lot of chatter about the book and what they were reading,” she said. “They were having some really interesting conversations about cultural implications and some scientific pieces.”

W&M News spoke with a number of incoming freshmen about Island of the Colorblind on move-in day, asking what they got out of the book. Many of them said that in addition to emphasizing the benefit of being able to examine a subject from multiple angles, the book personally helped prepare them for William & Mary.

Carima Nur exclusively reads fiction, never nonfiction, so Island of the Colorblind was revolutionary for her.

“It would change my perspective on what I read, and also how I read,” she said. “When I read fiction, it’s just glazing through, looking for plot. In nonfiction books, it really is all in the details, since there’s not exactly the same central story you’d have in fiction … I think it opens up a different realm.”

For Maddie Gaetano, the book provided insight into the daily struggles that scientists and others face as they grapple with a problem. “It wasn’t an illness that had already been cured,” she said. “It was showing the step-by-step process.”

And many students said it challenged them.                                

“Since it’s so current and it gives a different perspective of things, it really makes you think about how you view people and how society around you thinks about people,” Alexa Mason said.

“The whole idea that while one may think that a disability hinders them, it can actually render that person greater abilities, more sharpness in other senses,” Rohan Tomer said, “I felt like it was less of a lament than more of a hopeful remark on human adaptability. And I thought it was brilliant.”

Arts & Sciences also offered a “3x3x3” panel on Island of the Colorblind during the first week of September. Three faculty members from three disciplines – Peter Vishton from psychology, John Lee from art and art history, and Fred Smith from anthropology – offered three different takes on the book.

Homza is also hoping to coordinate an appearance by Emerson Odango ’05, a William & Mary alumnus who volunteered with the Peace Corps after graduating, serving as an elementary school teacher for two years on Pohnpei.

While new ideas for the book are still developing, factions of the campus are beginning to solicit feedback from students. Last week, Garrett sent out orientation surveys to the new students, including a number of questions about the book and the common reading experience.

Homza said the book will be used for the next three entering classes, partly so professors won’t need to remake their classes in fine detail annually and partly to create an intellectual bond between entering freshmen, sophomores and juniors.