Why are thousands of incoming freshmen reading the same book this summer as a precursor to their studies at The University of Akron? Each year the faculty chooses a "common reading selection" for all first-year students and weaves themes from the book into general education classes. This year their choice is "The Unlikely Disciple" by Kevin Roose, the autobiographical story of "a sinner's semester at America's holiest university." The story takes place at Liberty University — the "Bible Boot Camp" founded and run by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, evangelical leader of the Moral Majority and Religious Right.
Author Roose was a secular-minded sophomore at Brown University — which he describes as "a notch or two above Sodom and Gomorrah" — when he decided to take on a new persona and live the life of an evangelical college student. At Liberty University he submits to prohibitions against drinking, smoking, cursing, dancing and R-rated movies; and he takes courses like Evangelism 101, joins the "Every Man's Battle" purity group, sings in Falwell's choir and preaches to the partying crowd at Daytona Beach.
Along the way Roose learns about creationism, the logistics of Noah's ark and the imminence of the Rapture. But his most important lesson — or "Revelation" — comes not from the church or classroom, but from the scrutiny of stereotypes.
"Once you dig under the surface," Roose writes, “Liberty is every bit as messy and diverse as any secular college, and lumping everyone on this campus into a single category seems irrational and simplistic."
Why make this book required reading at UA?
"Many students come from small, homogeneous communities, and they are going to meet lots of types of students with many different opinions. The book is not so much about religion as it is about difference," says Dr. Christopher Tankersley, director of New Student Orientation and chairman of the faculty committee that selects the common reading book each year.
The 15-member committee, after considering 25 to 30 books, chose "The Unlikely Disciple" because it exposes students to different ways of thinking and viewing the world. As Roose writes, it is a lack of exposure that sustains the not-so-insurmountable God Divide — the partition is not a "hundred-foot brick wall" but a "flimsy piece of cardboard, held in place on both sides by paranoia and lack of exposure."
Tankersley says the book will elicit conversation and the exchange of ideas in class discussions, lectures, activities and essays in general education courses, including composition and public speaking.
The Common Reading Program, inaugurated in 2000, "offers first-year students a common experience that is a challenge on a campus this size," Tankersley adds.
Roose will visit UA’s E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 8, at 7:30 p.m. to deliver a formal lecture and answer questions from the audience.
“The Unlikely Disciple” is available at the Barnes and Noble bookstores in the Student Union, Polsky Building and on the Wayne College campus.
To learn more about the UA program and the author of this year's selection, visit the Common Reading Program online.
Story by Nicholas Nussen
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