At the University Senate meeting last Wednesday, Colette Masterson, director of the center for student involvement, announced the 2018-2019 Common Book, “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead.
The book, which is a 2017 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, is the fictional story of a female protagonist pursuing the Underground Railroad as a means of escape from slavery.
“We’re very, very excited for the dialogue and ways that various departments will be able to approach the topic,” said Masterson.
According to the university website, the Common Book program began in 1995. The goal of the program is to engage new students in a shared reading experience through writing and discussion. Around late fall, the university holds a campus-wide convocation in which the author of the common book will speak.
According to Masterson, the selection process for each Common Book starts two years in advance. A fall reading group narrows down a list of 50 books to ten finalists. The group consists of students, faculty, staff and alumni. The Spring Selection Committee then makes the final selection. This committee includes faculty from various departments and roughly two to three students.
“The Underground Railroad” was read in the fall of 2015 and made a candidate for selection. The Spring Committee then ranked the book as their first choice the day after Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize.
“The committee found the book to be a compelling read, with an interesting story method,” said Masterson in an email. “The opportunity to have a fiction book after multiple years of non-fiction is always good to diversify the genre offerings as well.”
However, not all committee members were in support of the final selection.
Amanda Ifantiedes, senior AYA English education major, said she, along with other students on the committee, did not support the final selection due to concerns about the book’s fictional take on the Underground Railroad.
“There are already so many misunderstandings, it seems unproductive for students to read a fictional account and see it as non-fiction,” said Ifantiedes in an email.
According to Ifantiedes, “The Underground Railroad” was ready to be eliminated from the committee’s finalists list for these reasons. However, the day before the committee’s next meeting, Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize.
“Many of the committee members decided it would be huge for Otterbein to bring someone of that status to campus,” said Ifantiedes. “My argument is that the book still has the same flaws we all saw before, those didn’t go away just because of the Prize. With this choice, I felt like committee members no longer cared about what students would connect to best and just liked how the university would look.”
Jennifer Bechtold, who co-chaired the committee last year, said the final selection was between “The Underground Railroad” and “Homegoing”, by Yaa Gyasi.
“We had pretty equal numbers of some students/committee members who preferred either,” said Bechtold in an email. “Once we heard Colson won the Pulitzer, we were excited about the potential of our incoming students getting to meet/talk with a Pulitzer Prize winner, so I think that tipped the scales.”
All first year students will receive copies of the Common Book during summer orientations. They are expected to return in the fall of 2018 with a completed writing assignment about the book, and will continue to hold discussions about the book’s themes throughout their first year seminar classes.
Additionally, Masterson announced funding for a Program Management Committee, which will plan activities centered on the Common Book throughout next spring.
“We want to continue this dialogue to create an ongoing conversation that we think is rich for conversation and will be a very exciting contribution to the community,” Masterson said.