Campus Members and Neighbors Share a "Common Experience"; San Diego State University Calls 2009 the Year of "Darwin's Voyage, Humanity's Journey"

By Frost, Christopher | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Campus Members and Neighbors Share a "Common Experience"; San Diego State University Calls 2009 the Year of "Darwin's Voyage, Humanity's Journey"


Frost, Christopher, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Three years ago, San Diego State University launched a sustained, intentional conversation dubbed the "Common Experience." The goal of this type of dialogical voyage was to promote a sense of intellectual connection across the campus and into the community. In 2009, San Diego State expands the initiative and embarks on a worldwide discussion. The global discourse springs from shared perceptions regarding the logic of celebrating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth (1809) and the sesquicentennial of the publication of his On the Origin of Species (1859).

Darwin links together the natural world, as On the Origin of Species attests, and subsequently maps humanity within that natural order. Just as Darwin searches for a unifying principle behind the seemingly unrelated, complicated and diverse elements of nature, so too does the Common Experience model--and 2009 as the "Year of Darwin"--seek to unite the seemingly unrelated, diverse contingents that comprise many a college campus.

Why a common experience?

A number of colleges and universities have migrated to a similar Common Experience model for 2009. Cambridge University, the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, St. Ambrose University, Northwestern University and Phi Kappa Phi fellow chapter Butler University are just a few of the institutions along with San Diego State to be involved in sustained conversations on Darwin.

One reason (besides the Darwin anniversaries) is this: Our colleges and universities resemble "multi-versities" more than "universities," possessed of campus cultures defined more by a collage of multiple and, at times, competing interests than by a common sense and sensibility of purpose. Manifold voices and variant songs provide rich and unlimited choices, but at a cost: a fractured sense of community and the sense of residing in a silo.

Many of the interests that compete for students' attention are defined not by how these interests further a pursuit of wisdom. Some interests even sound a tone of anti-intellectualism. The allures of tailgating, partying and popular culture at one end of this continuum, and the need to work while attending school at the other end, detract student attention from the life of the mind and matters of the heart.

Does the presence of anti-intellectualism and competing demands on student attention weaken the core mission of a campus? Does a lack of a true curricular "core" and infrequent integration of coursework matter? Does the tendency of universities to bypass the enduring "big questions" of life including meaning and values, both within and beyond the curriculum, shortchange students?

Yes, according to an emerging literature on student engagement, deep learning and assessment of student learning (see, for example, George Kuh's "High-Impact Educational Practices," a 2008 report issued by the Association of American Colleges and Universities). We all benefit from mutual points of reference, a common intellectual foundation and a communal historical context. Indeed, a shared experience allows us to carry on an intelligent conversation, a deliberate dialogue on big and difficult questions, and perhaps anticipate and avoid the barriers that ensue from having nothing in common.

"Personal interaction invigorates the educational process. With our Common Experience, dialogical learning flows seamlessly wherever faculty and students come together--in traditional campus settings, in the community and even in the international arena," said Stephen L. Weber, President of San Diego State.

The rationale behind San Diego State's Common Experience

San Diego State started a Common Experience in 2007:

* To imagine a scenario in which students, faculty, staff, and community members read the same book and engage in an ongoing conversation bounded by a common theme

* To facilitate a conversation within the classroom that spills across the campus and into the community

* To continue the discussion for months in an age characterized by information packaged as 30-second sound bites, and to do so over a number of platforms, from discussions with authors and academic panels to artistic interpretations and outdoor films

Key components of San Diego State's inaugural Common Experience

The inaugural program featured two one-year, thematic conversations bound by this theme: "Mapping the Future, Sharing the World. …

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