Field Notes from a Common Reading: Reflections on a Themed Academic Year

Posted on June 15, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , |

In the early summer of 2007, a golden opportunity fell into my lap. Unbeknownst to me, Rice University’s Dean of Undergraduates Office was in the midst of launching a common reading program, whereby all entering students in the first year class would receive a common book during the summer as a means of creating a shared intellectual experience once they arrived on campus. The selection committee had considered many titles, topics, and genres, but they felt the time was right to choose a book about global warming. Some eight hundred copies of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change would be appearing in mailboxes of incoming Rice students around the world, and the Assistant Dean of Undergraduates was calling me to see if I was interested in brainstorming ideas for activities related to the reading.

Within five minutes I was sitting in his office, trying to contain my excitement. In our meeting, we decided to create a year-long themed dialogue based on the common reading, branding 2007-2008 the year of “Humans, Nature, and Climate Change at Rice University.”

Some of the activities that supported the year of Humans, Nature, and Climate Change included the following:

  • Student-led discussions about the common reading selection during orientation week, accompanied by a lecture by Professor Neal Lane, former Director of the National Science Foundation and Science Advisor to the Clinton White House.
  • An environmental film series.
  • Signing of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment.
  • A lecture on Rice’s campus greening initiatives.
  • Distribution of about 100 free or subsidized tickets to attend a lecture by James E. Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and a premier scientist on climate change, who was speaking at Houston’s Wortham Center.
  • A month-long dorm energy competition that resulted in a savings of $15,000 – $20,000 in energy, and avoided production of about 85 metric tons of CO2.
  • A series of lectures by William Calvin, a theoretical neurobiologist and Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, entitled “How to Treat Global Fever: An Intelligence Test for Our Times.”
  • A luncheon with an environmental activist working with the Sierra Club and Green Corps on a campaign to block the construction of coal-fired power plants in Texas.
  • A CO2 Forum and Sustainability Fair, in connection with the nationwide Focus the Nation event. Featured speakers included Rice President David Leebron, Houston Mayor Bill White, Nobel Laureate and IPCC Scientist Dominique Raynaud, Shell Oil President John Hofmeister, and Professor Neal Lane. Prior to the Forum, the Sustainability Fair featured approximately 25 student groups, campus departments, and outside organizations hosting booths related to their activities.
  • A series of lectures on carbon sequestration through soil biochar amendment by Dr. Johannes Lehmann, an associate professor of soil fertility management and soil biogeochemistry at Cornell University.
  • A visit from the BioTour, a traveling environmental educational program transported in a vegetable-oil powered school bus.
  • A research presentation entitled “Fever Pitch of Chilly Climate? Assessing Rice Student Attitudes toward Environmentalism”

So we were wildly successful, right? Well, for our first attempt at creating such an experience, I believe we did well, but there are many lessons to share.

Looking back on the academic year, I’ve come to realize that choosing and programming a themed learning experience is not terribly unlike creating a thematic mix-tape (or iTunes playlist, for those of you not raised in the era of the cassette tape). On a thematic mix tape, if the theme is too narrow or if the songs sound too alike, then most people are just not going to enjoy it. Who wants to hear 60 minutes of songs about cornbread played on a kazoo and released by the RCA-Victor label between 1928-1935 when a better option is songs about food from a variety of eras and musical genres? Inclusiveness and diversity matter.

A key lesson from our experience was that we were too narrow in how we treated our theme. No matter how credentialed or impressive or articulate the expert, there are only so many times and in so many different ways that the ordinary college student is going to want to be told that their future is in jeopardy because of global climate change. Yes, a subgroup of the student population who are either on academic tracks related to global warming or who are interested in environmental topics in general no doubt found the year to be an amazing journey – as did I – but we arguably failed to truly engage the interest of the average student over the entire year because we over-relied on a narrow offering of lectures that mostly focused on the science of climate change. In the language of the mix tape, we essentially played the same song over and over again.

A second important lesson was uncovered in a study of Rice student attitudes toward environmentalism, led by Sociology professor Elizabeth Long, Sociology postdoc Kristen Schilt, and student Andrea Dinneen. Through a series of focus group interviews, the researchers discovered a clear desire by our students to respond to environmental issues through project-oriented learning. Our more active events – the dorm energy competition and the sustainability fair – were definite success stories, and perhaps this was because they appealed to students’ desires to be actively engaged in environmental solutions rather than to just sit passively and listen to the problems. I was delighted by this finding in part because I am a firm believer in the value of project-based learning, as I teach two courses that connect campus sustainability efforts with the curriculum through group projects.

A third lesson flows from the second. Through the focus groups, our students expressed a preference for content about climate change solutions in the lectures. There was only so much bad news that they could take. We did include several well-received events that focused on solutions, but they came late enough in the year that those looking for solutions had perhaps turned-off to our offerings by that point. We had lost the listener. I must admit a certain level of frustration with this finding in that one could interpret it as students wanting to be told that everything is going to be okay. In my view, the only way we make everything okay is through focused hard work to create lasting change. On the other hand, there are several emerging signs of hope, and I completely agree that providing a more thorough immersion in some of these topics would have improved our overall program.

Finally, I would recommend that those considering themed academic years make their topic selection early enough to allow campus centers, institutes, and faculty the time that they need to create tie-ins with their own events and courses. Because we were already in the midst of planning for our Focus the Nation event, we did have some tie-in to classes offered during the spring semester. However, by choosing our theme just a few months before the start of the fall semester, we narrowed our field of tie-in opportunities.

While I’ve not yet compared lessons learned with our Assistant Dean of Undergraduates, it does appear that we’ve arrived at some similar conclusions. The common reading for the 2008-2009 academic year is an amazing book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin called Three Cups of Tea that chronicles the efforts of Mr. Mortenson to establish schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s a tale of hope and hard work, demonstrating the kinds of outcomes that a single person can achieve to overcome poverty and deep cultural divides in this post 9/11 world. The accompanying theme is likely to be global citizenship, a topic broad enough to attract widespread student interest if properly programmed.

Inclusiveness of content. Opportunities for action. Inspiring stories with real solutions. Advanced planning. Perhaps these are the characteristics of a truly successful themed academic year. I’ll report back in a year on this topic to see whether I’m right. My sense is that with this new theme of global citizenship, we’ll have a hit.


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6 Responses to “Field Notes from a Common Reading: Reflections on a Themed Academic Year”

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James E. Hansen, In his most recent paper on GW solutions has cited Biochar and soil carbon sequestration as a primary solution.

All the data on Biochar, (AKA Terra Preta Soils)can be searched here;

Also, Biochar got into the Farm Bill;
S.1884 – The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884:

Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative

for the 2007 Farm Bill

Bolstering Biomass and Biochar development: In the 2007 Farm Bill, Senator Salazar was able to include $500 million for biomass research and development and for competitive grants to develop the technologies and processes necessary for the commercial production of biofuels and bio-based products. Biomass is an organic material, usually referring to plant matter or animal waste. Using biomass for energy can reduce waste and air pollution. Biochar is a byproduct of producing energy from biomass. As a soil treatment, it enhances the ability of soil to capture and retain carbon dioxide.

Sadly, In conference the $500 M was cut to $3M….:( 😦 😦

Biochar, the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!

Indeed, James Hansen is now placing it in the center stage of pro-active solutions for the climate crisis.

If you would like to get out of the noisy arguments and into the positive vision, please check out and beyondzeroemissions

The BBC documentary The Secret of El Dorado is what propelled Terra Preta into global awareness and the Australians especially have been providing exciting documentaries about current applications.

And if you would like to plunge deeper there is a great terra preta forum and information archive here.

Thanks for giving biochar your consideration.

Erich, I share your enthusiasm for biochar, it could truly be a silver bullet. Thank you for providing the background information and resources.


[…] Like our One Book One College program spear-headed by library extraordinaire Troy Swanson, other colleges are going with the sustainability theme as well.  This year Troy’s One Book pick is Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte.  Surrounding this book, Troy has organized really great program offerings of speakers, panel discussions, and film showings.  Other colleges, like Rice University, have also found similar success in a book themed program.  Rice chose Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.  For a listing of the events they held log onto […]

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