Common Context Program

Program Overview

E. M. Forster once urged his readers: “Only connect!” The English Department’s Common Context program, a feature of its introductory core literature and writing course (ENGL 121), helps students follow Forster’s injunction. Each academic year the department selects a context that has strong contemporary resonance for our lives, and that has also provided a powerful focus for some of the greatest imaginative literature: Water, Beauty, Work, Exploration, Home, Atonement, or Sanctuary, to name a few examples that have been either proposed or adopted in recent years.

Rather than adopt a single text to facilitate discussion of the Common Context, the Department celebrates the diversity of human literary expression by encouraging individual instructors to select a text that will address the given year’s theme in a primary way. Instructors also design writing assignments that will engage students in the ethical, political, and artistic implications of the theme chosen for that particular year. The Common Context is not just a focus, but a nexus as well, providing opportunities for learning and conversation across academic disciplines and linking to key parts of the University mission, including diversity, sustainability, and a focus on the common good. 

2016-2017 Common Context Theme: Mercy

Humanity is wounded; this is a time for mercy. These are the words of Pope Francis, who declared 2015-2016 the Jubilee of Mercy. Treat mercy, he urges us, as an action—a verb rather than a noun, a dynamic reaching out. “Let us not fall into humiliating indifference or a monotonous routine that prevents us from discovering what is new!” Instead, go about mercifying: live out mercy in our daily lives by being transformed through our encounters with others, especially the stranger, for the stranger is simply someone whose story we don’t know yet. We become merciful, says philosopher Martha Nussbaum, when we learn to read each person’s life as a “complex narrative of human effort in a world full of obstacles.” For at the very core of mercy is kindness, benevolence, and forgiveness—all essential acts of the imagination. Because without imagination—without the ability to connect creatively with others—acts of mercy would be frivolous.

In Station Eleven, the post-apocalyptic novel by this year’s visiting writer, Emily St. John Mandel, most survivors of a pandemic flu are concerned primarily with themselves and their own survival. A few others, such as the protagonist Kirsten Raymonde and her fellow musicians and actors of the Traveling Symphony, strive to preserve that which was best about the civilization they have all mostly lost, specifically, the ability to create and participate in art, and, thereby, the ability to mercifully connect, to be kind, and to forgive one another.

Our Visiting Novelist: Emily St. John Mandel

The award-winning novelist Emily St. John Mandel will be on campus September 29th for two events related to her New York Times best-selling novel, Station Eleven.

188X235Emily St. John Mandel was born in British Columbia, Canada. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a finalist for a 2014 National Book Award. Her previous novels were Last Night in MontrealThe Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet, all of which were Indie Next Picks.  She is a staff writer for The Millions, and her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2013 and Venice Noir. For additional information, please visit Photo Credit: Dese'Rae L. Stage.

Fall 2016 Common Context Events

Mercy and the Imagination

Tuesday, September 27, 12 p.m.
O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library, O’Shaughnessy Room
Facilitated by Dr. Amy Muse, English Department, faculty from a variety of disciplines will examine the concept of mercy and its relationship to the imagination.

Thursday, September 29, 3:30 p.m.

John Roach Center auditorium (JRC 126)
Students reading Station Eleven will have an opportunity to ask Emily St. John Mandel questions about her novel.

In Conversation with Emily St. John Mandel
Thursday, September 29, 7:00 p.m.

Anderson Student Center, James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall
The author of the critically acclaimed novel Station Eleven participates in a live conversation with Dr. Matthew Batt, English Department faculty member. Topics to be discussed include Mandel’s process of writing Station Eleven and the research that went into it, as well as her thoughtful reflections on the concept of mercy and the inherent value of the fine arts. A book signing will immediately follow the reading. This event is free and open to the public.

Previous Common Context Themes

2010-2011: Water
2011-2012: Hunger
2012-2013: The Meaning of Work
2013-2014: Wonder
2014-2015: Illumination
2015-2016: Disquiet