Lecturers Suzanne Smith and Michelle Davidson are the coordinators of “Common Read,” a learning experience to foster a spirit of community among freshmen enrolled in Composition I. Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President by Eli Saslow (Random House / Anchor Books, 2011) was chosen as the first (Fall 2013) common read.

Ten Letters is organized around a series of letters written by citizens to President Obama during his first term in office on a range of pressing social and economic issues. Each week, ten letters are chosen and presented to the President by his advisors; the President then chooses a few of these to respond to directly in his own handwriting. The letter topics—including unemployment, health care, veterans affairs, immigration, education, the environment and school bullying—are those that many Americans, including our UT students and their families, have likely encountered in their daily lives. Each letter is woven into a rich narrative of the writer’s life so that readers can examine the forces that shape people’s lives and the decisions that they make.

These issues, presented in the genre of letters and emails, are ideal for beginning writing course in which inquiry and critical thinking is stressed. The text supports the Learning Outcomes of the UT Composition program—to prompt reflection, inquiry, interdisciplinary discussion and critical thinking and writing.

Instructors can use Ten Letters in any way that supports their own syllabus and curricular goals. Learning Ventures has supplied a Blackboard shell for instructors who choose to use the book, in order to generate discussion topics, collaborate on writing assignments, and even share representative student writing throughout the semester.

President Lloyd Jacobs has agreed to participate in a Common Read assignment. Instructors using the book will require from students a “Write the UT President” assignment about some issue affecting college students, and/or them personally. Letters will be submitted to the committee, and ten will be selected to send on to the president, who promises to respond personally to each of them.

Students doing assignments connected with the Common Read project can compete to win Shapiro Essay Contest Prizes in two categories – research-based writing and non-research based writing.

Also, instructors and students will be directed to the Canaday Center where Barbara Floyd is putting together an exhibit which opens in late September: “Letters of Luminaries: Notable Correspondence in the Collections of the Ward M. Canaday Center.” It features letters by many famous (and infamous) people that are in our collections, including presidents.