This Thursday, a group of PCC students will gather together to talk about a book.
What makes this gathering different from any other day on a college campus is the number of students — more than 2,500 young adults, discussing the book Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler.
The event is part of PCC’s “One Book, One College” program, which is designed to encourage students at the primarily nonresident two-year college to form a common intellectual community. The reading program, now in its sixth year, assigns first-year students a common book to read, analyze, digest, and research, building critical college skills in the process.
“The book project lets our students be part of something much larger than themselves,” said Shelagh Rose, a languages professor who has worked on the program since its inception six years ago. “They talk to their friends and other people they meet on campus, and they can build this point of connection together.”
Students are expected to do much more than just read the novel. Regular reading journals organize thoughts and highlight key passages designed to evoke further thought. Classroom discussions explore different perspectives and encourage students to engage key themes in the text. Individually and in groups, students at all levels of reading ability learn to contextualize and analyze a text through the semester-long activity.
This year’s novel gives these students a trove of information to mine. Butler’s fourth novel, Kindred tells the story of Dana, an African American young woman who is transported between her normal life in California and her ancestors’ servitude on a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. As her episodes in the past get longer and more serious, she is forced to make difficult decisions to survive life as a slave or preserve her own bloodline.
The themes in Butler’s book will take shape in Thursday’s event, the culmination of the “One Book, One College” experience. At this campuswide research presentation, groups of students will showcase posters that delve into topics of their choosing, backing their observations with quotations from the book and from peer-reviewed journal articles that amplify the reading. PCC’s Shatford Library has been hosting training sessions for the community college students to learn how to conduct scholarly research and cite appropriate sources, crucial critical-thinking skills for students destined for the workforce or for education at a four-year institution. Best of all, the credits students earn for the “One Book, One College” experience are transferable to a UC degree.
“You typically don’t get this kind of in-depth activity in your first semester at community college,” Rose said. “Our students are engaged and enthusiastic about the reading in a way that you don’t often see, even at a four-year university. I’ve had honors-level English students look at me with surprise when they realize they can’t just find summaries online — I expect them to read the book in its entirety. And for many of the students we see, this is the first book they’ve read cover to cover.”
Each year, a cross-campus group consisting of counselors, teachers, administrators, and staff picks the “One College” book. Emily Roh, who leads PCC’s Cross Cultural Center and serves on the committee, said the group aims to find stories that emphasize social justice. “We try to use this project as a way to demonstrate to our students the power of the college’s mission,” she said. “We’re fostering connections between students across disciplinary lines, so this really helps build a sense of community.”
This year’s selection, while tying into a broader celebration of Butler’s life taking place across Pasadena this fall, offers a slight variation from the other years PCC has mounted the “One Book” program. While most authors of the campuswide selection speak to students about their work, Butler passed away in 2006. In her stead, Rose, Roh, and their collaborators have arranged to host a production of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Two Pictures in One by the theater group Unbound Productions. The abolitionist short story, staged at the end of the day of the enormous research presentation, offers another chance for students to immerse themselves in the theme of the book.
For Rose and Roh, the “One Book, One College” experience is about seeing PCC’s students deepen their appreciation for their community. “It’s a fantastic way to bring the campus together,” Rose says. “Every year we do this we learn new ways to connect with our students.”
PCC’s “One Book, One College” research poster session begins at noon on Thursday, Nov. 17, in locations across the center of campus. Unbound Productions’ staging of “Two Pictures in One” begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16, and Thursday, Nov. 17, in Sexson Auditorium. Admission is free with online registration.