Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Washington State University
CAS Connect March 2015

Learning treasures abound, even where unexpected

Eyes squinting and noses wrinkled, an uneasy group of students began sifting through a pile of garbage on their residence hall floor. “Here’s something,” one said, warily drawing out a tangled wire and broken earbuds.

students prowling through garbage Photo by Monnii-Boatwright
Photo by Monnii-Boatwright

Soon, more critical discoveries emerged and, before long, the students’ eyes had grown wide as they enthusiastically sorted through the refuse, learning important lessons about American culture.

The trash-sifting exercise was a WSU First-Year Focus project expanding on the theme of this year’s Common Reading book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes. The critically acclaimed book provides powerful insights about American society through an intense investigation of the nation’s waste.

Facilitating this uncommon exploration were trained garbologists Ken Faunce, instructor of history, and Jack McNassar, anthropology teaching assistant, along with Leslie Jo Sena, instructor of English. They’re among the many CAS faculty and staff who generously contribute time and expertise to make WSU’s Common Reading and First-Year Focus programs successful, said Karen Weathermon, who co-directs both programs.

Leslie Jo Senna
Jack McNassar
Ken Faunce

“It was delightfully encouraging to see the students take a serious approach to the work—as gross and uncomfortable as it sometimes was,” Sena said. “They really got into making astute observations about what people’s trash reveals about their lifestyles and choices.”

Each year, CAS faculty who are experts in topics raised by the Common Reading book share their knowledge with the University community through the Common Reading Tuesday lecture series, First-Year Focus projects, and related events.

Making learning interesting and fun

First-Year Focus is a University-wide, living–learning community program designed to increase students’ engagement with their peers, courses, faculty, and the University’s broader student-learning goals.

students recording refuse Photo by Leslie Jo Sena
Photo by Leslie Jo Sena

In the Common Reading program, a single book chosen by the University is to be read by all freshmen and used in classes, special events, and presentations with the goal of stimulating discussions between students and faculty and promoting learning beyond the classroom.

“Both programs have benefited a great deal from CAS contributions,” Weathermon said. The diversity of arts and sciences faculty and their range of specializations provide many opportunities for partnerships.

In fact, 19 of the 22 faculty involved in First-Year Focus events last fall were from CAS—representing history, English, music, sociology, geology, environmental studies, and biological sciences. In previous years, faculty in anthropology, psychology, and fine arts have been active as well.

Faunce, who teaches Roots of Contemporary Issues, one of the University Common Requirement (UCORE) courses, is the only WSU faculty member who has been engaged with First-Year Focus since it began in 2005.

“I’m fully committed to First-Year Focus,” Faunce said. “By linking students, faculty, and residence halls together, it demonstrates to students that learning is done everywhere and can be interesting and fun.”

Along with Faunce, Sena, and McNassar, Kurt Wilke in geology, Pamela Lee in fine arts, Lisa McIntyre in sociology, Lisa Carloye in biological sciences, Allyson Beall King in environmental studies, Roger Chan in history, and Ben Gonzales in theatre are some of the longtime faculty participants who have helped shape the best practices of the first-year program, Weathermon said. Several upper-division anthropology students were instrumental in this year’s garbology “digs,” as well.

‘Intellectual shared space’

Sena and Faunce also are among CAS faculty who play major roles in planning and implementation of the Common Reading program. Faunce’s leadership in connecting Common Reading themes with course curriculum earned him the Common Reading Excellence Award last year.

Begun in 2007, the Common Reading program draws on expertise from across the University to make each year’s book an “intellectual shared space,” illustrating how complex problems can be best understood through an interdisciplinary approach, Weathermon said.

The Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service, the English department’s Visiting Writer Series, and the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies’ Speakers Series are among the program’s strongest partners.

Partnering in events with CAS and other units has been a win-win situation, Weathermon said. “They help us by expanding the range of offerings, and we help them by bringing student audiences to events.”

At least 43 individual CAS faculty have participated as speakers in the Common Reading lecture series, some more than once. Well more than 2,000 students attend the Common Reading faculty lecture series each year.

In 2012, when Physics for Future Presidents was the common reading book, faculty in physics and astronomy and mathematics were featured in a number of special events.

When WSU was reading Stiff, English’s Michael Delahoyde led a discussion of the culture represented by mummy tales, and fine arts’ Carol Ivory joined anthropology’s McNassar on a panel about tattoos and body art.

Last year, psychology’s Joyce Ehrlinger led a discussion of Being Wrong – Adventures in the Margin of Error, a popular book in which her own research is cited.

Connecting research dots across WSU

“The common reading helps introduce students to a huge variety of research and creative activities occurring across the University,” Sena said. “They see diverse aspects of the University and how different disciplines go together.”

In addition to teaching English 101, also a UCORE course, Sena conducts assessment for common reading and recently became assistant director of first-year programs through the Office of Undergraduate Education.

She has found that, since the launch of the faculty lecture series, students report significantly greater understanding of the types of research occurring at WSU, one of the program’s primary goals.