Community college students are famous for their lack of connections to each other. Unlike their four-year college counterparts, they lack convenient dormitories where they can readily share the daily experiences that cement them into a distinctive college community. Although a small number of community college students take advantage of professional organizations or special-interest clubs on campus, the vast majority sandwich their classes between their family responsibilities and work schedules that allow little free time for such participation.
Facing these realities, the English department of Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) decided that the students enrolled in its first freshman writing course would share a common experience to bond them to each other and to the college. Thus the All-Campus Read was born.
Unlike the mechanical process of selecting a common rhetoric and reader to use as course texts, the department's members intentionally determined that they would create a unique experience to enrich the campus community. They wanted their students 1) to engage in conversations about important issues beyond their English classes, 2) to recognize themselves as participants in a larger learning community than their individual classrooms, and 3) to experience a contemporary author.
Once the English Department's members agreed to include a common novel and determined their goals, a core committee formed to select, read, and present possible novels to their colleagues. The selection criteria included locating a readable novel that would be of interest to students as well as to faculty and staff. The novel's themes would connect with students' lives, and its author would be accessible and affordable enough to bring to campus. After several weeks and much discussion, the department's members selected Lee Smith's The Devil's Dream as the first all-campus read. Not only did the novel meet the overall intended goals, but also it was selected because of its exploration of family history, its structure and style, its inclusion of a variety of narrative voices, and its content connection to country music, a bonus since the college had inaugurated an entertainment technology program that had some roots in country music performers. In addition, Lee Smith lived less than two hours from the campus and it was likely that she could be convinced to speak at GTCC.
Implementing the Novel into the Course
Once the selection was made, the college bookstore ordered over 1500 books for the fall semester, and the department's members had to determine how to embed the novel into the over-80 sections of Expository Writing staffed by 10 of the 15 full-time instructions and nearly twenty adjunct instructors. Aware of heavy course loads and a demanding curriculum, the department wanted the experience for both students and faculty to be enriching and enjoyable, not an additional demand. To take some of the burden off all freshman writing teachers, several faculty members developed assignments and activities during their summer vacations that could be shared with their colleagues. Reading focus quizzes, discussion questions, writing prompts, and team projects emerged and were made available to all full-time and adjunct faculty. All faculty members were encouraged to create additional materials, and these were also routed throughout the department.
Inadvertently, the department's full-time faculty members embraced a new kind of partnership with their adjunct colleagues, developing a relaxed camaraderie and acknowledging each other's professionalism and creativity. Finally, a book-on-tape version of the novel was ordered, as well as CDs of country songs mentioned in the novel, all of which could be used in classroom instruction.
Implementing the Novel into The College
Once the curriculum groundwork was laid, the next focus became how to integrate the novel into the larger college community. The English department's goal was not just to have students in freshman English interact with the novel, but to have as many other faculty members as were willing integrate some reference to the novel into their course content. English faculty immediately alerted their colleagues in other departments to the choice of novel and asked them to participate in uniting students in this common experience. This outreach resulted in a history instructor's including oral history assignments based upon some of the novel's themes, humanities instructors' pursuing class discussions on Appalachian culture, and music instructors asking students to critically respond to country and folk music indigenous to Appalachia.
The next step was to include the administrative, student services, and support staff. Working with our bookstore manager, the department arranged to have additional copies of the novel available for purchase at a discounted price. In addition, the bookstore staff created a large informational display to promote the novel and Lee Smith's other works. Many opportunities were planned to highlight and discuss the book, which encouraged faculty and staff to participate and prepared them for the author's visit.
Implementing the Author Visit
Without a budget to support the visit, the department wrote a grant and was awarded funding by the GTCC Foundation, a common mode of funding. However, a second source of funding was unexpected—a partnership with the GTCC bookstore that helped in planning and the details of Lee Smith's visit. Since the bookstore is one of very few profit centers on campus, the bookstore manager also volunteered to support the event financially, pending administrative approval. As we begin our fourth year of the All-Campus Read, the bookstore continues as an active partner in bringing our author to campus.
Once money issues seemed settled, the second challenge was to structure the day's events of the author's visit. The department members had unanimously agreed that the event should be open not only to the campus, but to the larger community. With the aid of some campus resources, advertising flyers were created and sent to local colleges. The committee contacted local media, who were invited to the campus.
Lee Smith's late morning arrival allowed her a bit of relaxation before she was introduced at noon to an audience of over 500, lectured on her writing, and answered students' well-prepared questions. After an hour, the crowd emptied into the foyer where the bookstore staff had set up an area to sell Smith's books and a table where Smith signed the dog-eared novels students had used in class. Having signed over 200 books, Smith joined a small group of faculty and staff for a gourmet lunch prepared by the college's culinary students. After a brief rest at a local hotel, Smith returned to campus for an evening reading attended by about 200 and another book signing and reception.
Worries that had plagued the planners vanished. The fears that the large auditorium would be dotted with numerous empty seats evaporated as latecomers were forced to sit in the aisles and stand along the wall. The fear that students who had little experience with public readings would exhibit inappropriate behaviors was likewise unfounded as they sat attentively, seemingly awed by their closeness to the person whose words had prodded them into thoughtful class discussions. The fear that questions posed might be frivolous or flippant disappeared as students asked about inspiration for writing, style, and character planning. In short, the visit was the perfect capstone event for a semester of reflection, discussion, and writing. Students, faculty, and staff were all willing participants, and their interaction with each other and with the author made them proud of their GTCC affiliations and provided academic excitement.
Having completed three years of these events, the faculty and college are more committed than ever to the usefulness of the program to the college community. With the success of Lee Smith's novel, the second year brought Clyde Edgerton to discuss The Floatplane Notebooks, as well as several of his other works. The most recent year involved the college and department in a citywide reading of Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, a One-City, One-Book event initiated by the Greensboro Public Library. Although each author's work made a unique contribution to the curriculum of freshman writing, even more important was the feeling of solidarity among campus citizens and the academic aura that surrounded these events.
This fall, the fourth iteration of the all-campus read will bring Orson Scott Card and a discussion of Ender's Game. But, more importantly, English department members will commit to integrating a novel into the English curriculum, to creating interdisciplinary connections, to motivating campus involvement, and to planning an author's visit—all to help shape a community college into a community.