Campus engages in common reading

With “Flu” making its way across the Pullman campus, the excitement has been contagious.

In the third month of their first common reading project, WSU Pullman freshmen and their teachers are finding a variety of ways to use the book, “Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It.” For example:

• After exchanging droppers of clear liquids between test tubes, freshmen in teaching assistant Mary Grace Antony’s public speaking class listened carefully to chemistry, biology, history and genetics minilessons. If their concoction turned pink, they were “infected” with influenza.

“I’ve got it!” one student exclaimed.

The lessons were presented by seniors coordinated by Phil Mixter, clinical assistant professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences.
• Senior instructor Robert Staab has used the common reading to introduce the notion of disease in societies to his Gen Ed 110 freshmen, who study ancient Mesopotamia up to the Renaissance. His students compared and wrote about how differently Europeans and Middle Easterners dealt medically with the Black Death (bubonic plague) pandemic in the 14th century.

• Honors College freshmen read the book over the summer and arrived at WSU prepared to consider questions prepared in a study guide by Libby Walker, interim dean.

“Through group exercises with faculty, the freshmen learned in the week before classes started that our emphasis is on learning, not teaching. No one’s ‘The Expert,’ ” she said.

“The common reading has caught on more than anyone a year ago might have anticipated,” said Mary F. Wack, vice provost for undergraduate education.

The purpose of the reading, she said, is to find “new ways to connect students, faculty and staff with each other as a community of learners engaged with big questions, questions that don’t have obvious answers. That’s what we do in research universities.

“It’s a way of helping entering students transition to more sophisticated ways of thinking and communicating. And I think it’s been a great opportunity for the faculty to try creative ideas as well,” Wack said.

How — and if — faculty would use the book was left up to them. It was recommended, though, that faculty, librarians, Residence Life staff and advisers of the Freshman Focus living-learning community utilize “Flu” where possible.

Such “common readings” are successful at many top-ranked universities nationwide. WSU Vancouver has its own common reading program in its second year.

In 315 pages, “Flu,” by New York Times science writer Gina Kolata, traces the worldwide pandemic that killed probably than 50 million people — no one knows for sure since few written records exist. The story is told in vignettes — scientists’ quests to examine lung tissue from 1918 victims long buried in Alaskan ice fields, researchers sequencing genes, and evaluations of other epidemics.

To date, 3,428 copies of “Flu” are in the hands of WSU students, faculty and staff.

“The response from the academic as well as the Student Affairs sides of the university and beyond has been tremendous,” said Susan Poch, associate vice president for educational development.

“A common reading requires the culture of the campus community to change. We’re seeing that happen. I’m optimistic that the program is a success in its pilot year.”

Plans are being made to assess student learning outcomes and faculty experiences.

Two free guest lectures
• Former WSU faculty member, historian and author Alfred W. Crosby, who is liberally quoted throughout the book as an expert on the 1918 flu and pandemics, will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday,

Oct. 16, in Smith CUE 203.

• Author Gina Kolata (right), a Pulitzer Prize-nominated New York Times science writer, will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6, in Beasley coliseum.

More activities and resources:
• Flu shots will be available at WSU beginning Oct. 15. See ONLINE @ for more information.

• Phil Mixter, clinical assistant professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences, has set up a site where the WSU community can blog about the speakers: ONLINE @
• A discussion on epidemics and indigenous peoples, presented by the WSU Plateau Center for American Indian Studies, will begin at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7, in the Honors College lounge.

• A digital collection describing the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic on the Pullman campus can be found ONLINE @ Compiled by WSU Libraries, the database includes 114 documents from university archives and a timeline with links to primary sources.

• Under the Big Tent debate, noon Tuesday, Nov. 13, Glenn Terrell mall, topic will be emergency preparedness for campus disaster, including a potential avian flu outbreak.

• The official common reading project site is ONLINE @

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