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. 

2015-2016 Common Context Theme: Disquiet

Not as commonly used these days as “unease,” “anxiousness,” “unsettlement,” or “alarm,” the word “disquiet” means, quite literally, “unquiet.” As a verb, “disquiet” allows us to provoke those feelings in others – perhaps an act of malice, perhaps an act of courage, or perhaps both. Disquiet might be a condition of being that suggests an ominous arrival, or it might be the act of stirring, rattling, resisting stagnation, an act that, as in the old African American spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” leads to healing.

When we think of disquiet today, we may think of Ferguson, of the Arab Spring, of hundreds and thousands and millions of people saying, “we won’t let you be comfortable.” In literature and film, disquiet is characterized by Kurtz in Apocalypse Now as he marvels at the will of the Vietnamese soldiers who hacked off “every inoculated arm,” or the figures in Sylvia Plath’s “The Disquieting Muses,” “With heads like darning eggs” nodding and nodding at “the left side” of her speaker’s crib. Disquiet extends even further in Claude McKay’s “If We must Die,” in Patricia Smith’s “Ethel’s Sestina,” in the Grimms’ “Juniper Tree,” and in Doughboy’s haunting line from Boyz in the Hood in 1991: “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.” The examples can go on and on.

While there are a variety of ways that we can explore the concept of disquiet, the important thing to remember is that “disquiet” means that something will happen, as “disquiet” is rarely followed by nothing. As the proverb goes, it is always (dis)quietest before the storm. “Disquiet” as a Common Context will provide us the opportunity to explore this storm, our anxieties about it, and what its influence on us will be once its power has passed us by.

Our ACTC Visiting Poet

For common context page--200X300The award-winning poet Jamaal May will be on campus during the week of October 12th for a series of events related to his poetry collection, Hum, published by Alice James Books in 2013. ‌All events are free and open to the public.

Evoking the theme of disquiet, May’s first book of poems, Hum, is a “bittersweet love song” to the ruined streets of his native Detroit. Boston Review writes, “In May’s skilled hands, Keats’s urn becomes a Chinese takeout box and Wordsworth’s abbey spires are belching Zug Island factories.” May’s poetry uses images of technology past and present to render the “hum” that drives human identity and connection. Since Hum’s publication in 2013, May has won the Beatrice Hawley Award, the ALA Notable Book Award, and was a finalist for the NAACP Image award and Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He has also published two chapbooks, The God Engine and The Whetting of Teeth.

May’s poetry has been published in Poetry, The Believer, Ploughshares, New England Review, and The Kenyon Review. His work has been recognized by Cave Canem, Bread Loaf, the Lannan Foundation, and the Indiana Review. He has also been a recipient of the Kenyon Review Fellowship at Kenyon College, Bread Loaf, Callaloo and the Civitella Ranieri Fellowship.

May’s career as an editor and teacher began when he taught poetry in the Detroit public school system. Since then, he has also been on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA. He has served as an associate editor of West Branch and the series editor, graphic designer, and filmmaker for the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook and Video Series. May is also a member of six national poetry slam teams, including five from Detroit and the NYC-based LouderARTS team. He is a three-time Rustbelt Regional Slam champion and has been a finalist at several national and international poetry slams.

May's visit is sponsored by the ACTC Visiting Writers Series and the English Department's Common Context Program.

Fall 2015 Events

Monday, October 12, 2015
Student Q & A with Jamaal May
10:55a-12:00pm, OEC Auditorium

Students had an opportunity to ask poet Jamaal May questions about his writing process and his book Hum.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Student Q & A with Jamaal May
Noon-1:00pm, OEC Auditorium

Students had an opportunity to ask poet Jamaal May questions about his writing process and his book Hum.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Jamaal May Poetry Reading and Book Signing 
7:30pm, Anderson Student Center, Woulfe Alumni Hall North

Poet Jamaal May read selections from his poetry collection, Hum, published by Alice James Books in 2013 and listed as an ALA Notable Book. A book signing was held immediately following the reading.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015 
Jamaal May Common Context Lecture 
7:30pm, Anderson Student Center, Woulfe Alumni Hall North

ACTC Visiting Writer Jamaal May lectured on the theme of disquiet and discussed how he incorporates that sense of disquiet in his writing. To hear May's lecture, please watch this streaming video.

Previous Common Context Themes

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