The English and technical communication department at the University of Missouri-Rolla is experimenting with a new program to improve freshman students’ experience during their first year at UMR by giving them something in common to talk about.
Faculty teaching all 25 sections of English 20, the introductory course required of most freshmen, have assigned the same book to their students. The book, Tom and Huck Don’t Live Here Anymore: Childhood and Murder in the Heart of America by Ron Powers, was chosen for its connection to Missouri.
"This program gives incoming freshmen a common experience that can provide a sense of community," says Dr. Kristine Swenson, associate professor of English and technical communication.
"We hope that by assigning a common text, we are encouraging interaction among students," adds Dr. Kate Drowne, assistant professor of English and technical communication and director of the UMR Writing Center. "They can discuss this book and consult with one another while writing papers based on Tom and Huck."
This year’s book was selected both for its Missouri setting and for its non-fiction style. Works chosen for future years will also be non-fiction.
"The writing our students are learning in English 20 is analytical, non-fiction writing," says Swenson. "Powers’ book is a good example for them."
Published in 2001, Tom and Huck Don’t Live Here Anymore: Childhood and Murder in the Heart of America blends author Powers’ own memoirs about growing up in Hannibal, Mo., in the 1950s with the true-crime stories of two murders committed by four teenagers in Hannibal in 1997. The murders prompted Powers to examine the state of childhood in America today and how it has changed in recent generations.
Drowne and Swenson say the program is also aimed at getting students more interested in reading and so far, it seems to be working.
"We’ve gotten great feedback from the students," says Drowne. "Many of them have really connected with the book."
"They (students) really appreciate the fact that although it is set in Missouri and is about growing up in Missouri, it places the story in a larger cultural context," Swenson adds. "It has also served as a great starting point for discussions, prompting students to share their own high school experiences."
On April 14 Powers will visit UMR to give a public lecture on his book, award prizes for an essay contest based on Tom and Huck, and interact with UMR students. The lecture, which is free and open to the public, will be held at 7 p.m. in Leach Theatre of Castleman Hall, 10th and Main streets in Rolla.