Common Book vs. Common Problem: the future of creating common experiences

August 6, 2013, 8:01 pm

One of the things I enjoyed at UCSB was co-leading the common book program. That effort wasn’t just focused on freshmen, but was open to everyone. We worked really hard to embed the book and theme across many courses and disciplines. We also worked with the local community college and public library  –  striving for it to be a community-wide  / county-wide experience each year


I’ve been considering the program here at Virginia Tech and using some good lateral thinking, I’m wondering how might we try something different? Or: what does a common book program look like without a book?


When you look at the goals (build a sense of community, encourage intellectual engagement, stimulate critical thinking, connect to VT values) it seems possible to do this in other ways. The book is really just a starting point. It gives students and instructors a common framework, but is it necessary? Could we build community in another form?



Courtesy of Stanford’s D School

Then I thought: what if we had a common problem instead? A big, bold, multifaceted problem. A problem that would require interdisciplinary cooperation. A problem that would get poets talking to engineers and agriculture students working with architect majors. A problem that is tackled in classrooms, labs, studios, social media, and commons spaces. A problem that becomes a part of the ongoing campus conversation. A problem that people are passionate about. A problem that could easily plug-and-play so that courses could come and go and move ideas forward. A problem that anyone could participate in, even outside of class. A problem that gets alumni interested. A problem that could change the world… or at least the local community.


This seems like a more modern and perhaps emotionally engaging way to accomplish the stated goals. Instead of reading a common book there might be a common data set, a common essay, a common piece of software, a common youtube video —whatever. The problem could be captured, addressed, and expressed in many different formats, including books or other texts, but not limited to that.


I think grand challenges and hack-a-thons have shown that this “problem-oriented” approach gets people motivated. It seems to offer a great opportunity for stimulating the intellect. It also gives people a platform to participate in new ways. And it would associate librarians with ideas, knowledge, creativity, progress, etc instead of just print books. Just daydreaming a bit… dreaming about problems.


See also:

The Edge of Chaos

Art of Problem Discovery

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