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. 

2017-2018 Common Context Theme: Sanctuary

Our Theme

‌Sanctuary can refer to the interior of a church where worship takes place, or more specifically, the area directly surrounding the altar, the most sacred part of the church building. Sanctuary also has many other meanings beyond the architectural such as safety, harbor, or refuge. As its Latin root, “sanctus,” indicates, its meaning is connected to what is holy or sacred, but it is important to remember that sanctuary has always depended upon the concept of justice. The Siete Partidos, a thirteenth-century code for the Kingdom of Spain, decreed that no person who “takes refuge” in a church should be pursued, killed, or punished in any way no matter “what offense he has committed, or debt which he owes” because a church and cemetery “possess an exemption.” This order of justice was written plainly into Spanish law.

A sanctuary, then, is a place of peace, safety, or refuge not because of how strong its walls are or how clandestine its location. A sanctuary is what it is because of a commitment on the part of human beings to stand up for what they value.

275 X 385 pxOur department’s understanding of sanctuary is animated by our belief in the importance of justice and the responsibility we hold to each other as human beings. If sanctuary is a safe place, then we are obligated to open our doors, to welcome those who need shelter, a warm blanket, a hot meal, a cool drink. Yet, sanctuary is more than opening a door to someone; it is asking why there is a door and why it was closed in the first place. We must seek to engage the conditions outside our doors – we must remember that the storm, the “cataracts and hurricanes” that blow outside in the night, the ominous forces of pursuit, are not unnatural, but are the consequence of our personal inertia and inaction.

When we think of sanctuary, then, we should think carefully about the ways we can make those spaces, both physical and conceptual, that offer safety, peace, refuge, escape, and justice larger and more encompassing. We should think about how we can not only offer “shelter from the storm,” but an examination of the storm itself. King Lear raged at a storm he believed rained injustice on his ancient head; like Lear, we should consider how we ourselves have contributed to the storm of injustice that today rages daily in all quarters of the world, cracking and blowing upon the heads of the innocent. In the face of those winds, we should act in ways that reflect our values. Yes, we should offer sanctuary to the refugee, the immigrant, the slave, the exploited, the fugitive, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, or anyone else – but that offer of sanctuary should be only a first step in an ongoing effort to transform our world into a more just and equitable place for everyone.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Viet Thanh Nguyen Craft Talk and Q&A
3:30pm, OEC Auditorium

Students will have an opportunity to learn about the craft of writing from author Viet Thanh Nguyen and ask him questions about his books.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Viet Thanh Nguyen Reading and Lecture
7:00pm, OEC Auditorium

Viet Thanh Nguyen will read selections from his books and discuss the concept of sanctuary in his writing. Books will be available for purchase and a signing will immediately follow the event which is free and open to the public.
the event, which is free and open to the public.

Our Guest Author

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Other honors include the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, a Gold Medal in First Fiction from the California Book Awards, and the Asian/Pacific American Literature Award from the Asian/Pacific American Librarian Association.

His other books are Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction) and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. For additional information about Nguyen, please visit his website.

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
2016-2017: Mercy