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. 

2014-2015 Common Context Theme: Illumination

The award-winning essayist Amy Leach will be on campus during the week of September 22nd for a series of events celebrating her genre-defying book Things That Are. All events are free and open to the public.

The book, a collection of 28 essays and meditations on the natural world, combines science, nature, philosophy, and cosmology with Leach’s wild imagination on subjects ranging from the tiniest Earth dwellers to far-flung celestial bodies. The Guardian newspaper in London said the book was written with “mad, magical exuberance and whimsy” as it attempts to “slowly, methodically, thoughtfully, digest the universe for you.”

Leach has been recognized with the Whiting Writers’ Award, Best American Essays selections, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been published in A Public Space, Tin House, Orion, the Los Angeles Review, and many others.

Leach’s visit is sponsored by the ACTC Visiting Writers Series and the UST English Department’s Common Context Program. This year’s common context theme is “Illumination.” Illumination begins with an invitation to both see more than what is immediately apparent, and also believe that most subjects deserve such an effort. Whether considering science or philosophy, business or art, the act of illumination both sheds and discovers light in its subject. The tradition of illumination can be literal, however, as in the act of brightening a room, or drawing an illustration, and it can of course be figurative, as in the intellectual or spiritual act of bringing oneself or another to greater understanding. Similarly, when considering illumination in texts, one might consider the very traditional illuminated texts such as the Book of Kells, as well as their modern inheritors, the graphic novel, and then all the other limitless texts in between that drive us toward illumination.

Leach’s book engages with this theme by attempting to understand & illuminate existence from a point of view outside the self. The central question the book asks is: What would it be like to experience the world as something other than me?

Fall 2014 Events

Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Amy Leach Reading and Book Signing 
7:30pm, Anderson Student Center, Woulfe Alumni Hall North

Author Amy Leach read selections from her nonfiction book Things That Are: Essays, published by Milkweed Editions in 2012. A book signing was held immediately following the reading.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014 
Amy Leach Common Context Lecture for English Students
7:30pm, Anderson Student Center, Woulfe Alumni Hall North

ACTC Visiting Writer Amy Leach lectured on the theme of illumination and discussed how she incorporates her own sense of illumination into her lyric essays. A streaming video of her lecture can be found HERE.

Thursday, September 25, 2014
Student Q & A with Amy Leach
11:45am, OEC Auditorium

Students had an opportunity to ask author Amy Leach questions about her writing process and her book Things That Are.

Thursday, September 25, 2014
Panel Presentation: The Making of Things That Are
7:30pm, Owens Science Hall, 3M Auditorium (OWS 150) 

Amy Leach, Patrick Thomas (Milkweed Editions Managing Editor), and illustrator Nate Christopherson discussed the business and artistic processes that went into creating and publishing Leach's Things That Are.

Previous Common Context Themes

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