Common Reading

RWU Common Reading Program

The Common Reading Program at RWU provides an introduction to academic life at the University for our new students and serves as a vehicle to bring the community together over a shared intellectual endeavor. This program was started in 2006 and has become a tradition that promotes the importance of academics, community, and discourse.  Each year the Common Reading Selection Committee meets to discuss possible books and carefully considers themes and topics that are integral to student learning, academic exploration and discussion. The authors of the selected books are invited to campus to provide a lecture and to participate in related activities, including classroom discussions. The result is a program that encourages new students, upperclassmen, and faculty and staff to explore interesting topics together and to share a common experience during the first weeks of the new semester each year.

Books that have been selected over the years have included:

"Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri


"A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah


"The Working Poor" by David Shipler


"The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman


"Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Tracy Kidder


"Sailing Alone Around the Room" by Billy Collins


"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot


"Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War" by Nathaniel Philbrick


"The Circle" by Dave Eggers


"In the Shadow of the Banyan" by Vaddey Ratner


Themes of identity & immigration using the documentary Ellis as a starting point for reflection & discussion


"Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race" by Beverly Daniel Tatum


2017 Common Reading Selection

Join the Roger Williams University entering class and our entire academic community as we explore themes on the intersection of race, gender and power in America. This year, the Common Reading Committee welcomes Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations About Race. As the campus community reads the twentieth anniversary edition of her seminal work, Tatum — the former president of Spelman College and a national expert on race relations — will visit RWU on Wednesday, Nov. 8, to share her perspective on what has changed in racial identity development and the role of race in the classroom in the two decades since she published her groundbreaking text.

“Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations About Race was selected as the multicultural book of the year by the National Association of Multicultural Education, named to the Independent Bookstore Bestseller list and recommended by the New York Times as required reading for teachers and administrators dealing with issues of race and class.

Tatum is a 2013 recipient of the Carnegie Academic Leadership Award and was awarded the prestigious Brock International Prize in Education for her innovative leadership in the field. She has also received the American Psychological Association Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology.

Themes Introduced at New Student Orientation

During the New Student Orientation, students participated in a newly designed, two-hour orientation session on the academic transition to RWU entitled “Charting Your Course @RWU.” This interactive session made heavy use of polling software to help frame the academic choices that students would begin to make when registering for courses the following day. The first hour focused on identifying the skill sets and habits of mind necessary for success at RWU and beyond. Students were encouraged to view the curriculum options as a set of opportunities through which skills and habits could be honed. They were also introduced to the resources available to support their success.

The second hour of the session was also interactive and designed to serve as a model classroom experience. A faculty member introduced the text “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations About Race, and asked students to respond via polling software with what they knew about the topics of race relations and racial identity development. Students could submit multiple responses and answers were projected live on a large screen. The faculty member then led the group in a discussion of what it means to do a close reading, and followed with an introduction to the idea of a learning reflection by asking students text responses to one or more of the following prompts.

  • What does the text make you think about and how it makes you feel?
  • What details stand out to you, or do you think might be important?
  • What connections can you make to what you know, or to things that are happening in the world?

Students were then dismissed to a 30-minute session during which a trained peer orientation advisor led them in a small group discussion about some of the themes emerging from the text. The goal here was to help students begin to see that they were part of a learning community in which people think, write, and talk about important ideas.

For more information about the common reading experience, please contact Associate Provost Bob Shea or Associate Dean of Student Success Allison Chase Padula. 

Common Reading Contest

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Multi-media Response to In The Shadow of the Banyan

The Common Reading Committee is pleased to announce this year’s Common Reading contest.  The contest welcomes submission of essays or multi-media responses.   

Essay.  Please submit a 750-word, double-spaced essay that responds to one of the prompts below. Include a cover sheet that contains:  your name (this is the only place your name should appear), the title of your essay, the contest you are entering “First year/New” OR “Returning Student” and your email address. 

Multi Media Response.  Examples may include: video, soundtrack, podcast, photo-essay, recorded dramatization.  As the choices of potential responses are wide, establishing specific criteria is difficult.  A general guideline for time dependent artifacts – video, original music, podcasts are minutes in length, usually less than fifteen.  If selecting a multi media response, a brief (1-2 paragraphs) artist's statement should be included.  An artist’s statement is an expression of why you have chosen to highlight the chosen prompt, using the particular media you have submitted.

Prompts- please choose one! 

1.  Who are the Khmer Rouge and what did you learn about them from In the Shadow of the Banyan? What fundamental problems existed in the Khmer Rouge's plan that caused the destruction of so many lives? Were there any values that the Khmer Rouge claimed to hold that you share?

 2.  When Raami, the protagonist of In the Shadow of the Banyan, describes being rescued by UN forces, she recalls her father's words about the power of stories:  He said:  "I told you stories to give you wings, Raaimi, so that you would never be trapped by anything--your name, your title, the limits of your body, the world's suffering" (314). In the format of your choice, illustrate the ways Vaddey Ratner's book conveys such transcendence.  In particular, how does it set free the stories of inhumanity too often trapped in silence?  

 3.  In describing the purpose of writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, a story of a family’s life during the Pol Pot Regime in Cambodia, Vaddey Ratner wrote: “It isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience of genocide, or even loss and tragedy.  What I wanted to articulate is something more universal, more indicative, I believe, of the human experiences—our struggle to hang onto life, our desire to live, even in the most awful circumstances…My purpose is to honor the lives lost, and I wanted to do so by endeavoring to transform suffering into art.” (“A Conversation with Vaddey Ratner”).  In the format of your choice, describe the ways Ratner achieves this goal. 

4.  During her visit to the RWU campus, Vaddey Ratner, author of In the Shadow of the Banyan, spoke of being “educated in the extremes of human brutality” …but in the midst of those experiences finding “unexpected, repeated acts of compassion” (RWU Campus, October 13, 2015). Her narrative, In The Shadow of the Banyan, illustrates both.  In the format of your choice, e.g. essay, painting, sketch, song, dance, or film, describe the insights we can gain from the text about strength, resilience, and perseverance in the face of adversity.