Common Conversations Background

The Clarkson Common Book
At the launch of each academic year, the Clarkson community is invited to engage in “Common Conversations”, shared explorations of a theme or topic, traditionally inspired by the reading of a common book recommended by the Clarkson Common Book Project Committee. Meaningful intellectual discussions, in educator-led groups during orientation weekend, are bolstered by a lecture given at Convocation, often by the book’s author. This is made possible by the Van Sickle Endowed Lectureship, the purpose of which is “to introduce distinguished speakers and highly acclaimed performers whose appearances may broaden the new student’s educational horizons.” 

The Van Sickle Endowed Lectureship
The Kenneth J. and Irla Van Sickle Endowed Lectureship was established in 1992 through generous bequests from the estates of Kenneth and Irla Van Sickle of Shortsville, N.Y. The Van Sickles shared interests in photography, gardening, nature and stamp collecting. During their long and active lives, the Van Sickles were dedicated to hard work, placing great value on education, particularly higher education.


What’s Your Story? 

In 2021, the Common Book Committee was inspired to diversify. With a focus on the theme What’s Your Story?, the Committee selected a combination of articles and short videos that explore storytelling and narrative identity to serve as the basis for discussions about why stories matter, whose stories matter, who is telling stories, and the variety of ways stories are expressed. Students were invited to reflect on their own stories, asked to be open to others’, and encouraged to hone their self-presentation storytelling skills, especially as they begin their journey at Clarkson. The Committee intended for these themes of storytelling and identity to continue to be presented during the academic year through a series of campus events which celebrate the diverse cultures and stories of others.

The associated convocation presentation, supported by the Van Sickle Endowed Lectureship, was a performance by African Soul International

Common Reads

What’s Your Story? Questions to Prompt Discussion

Due to NY State restrictions on public gatherings and in the interest of public health during the COVID-19 pandemic, University Convocation was cancelled this year, as were the associated readings and discussions.  

The Devil’s Highway
Author: Luis Alberto Urrea

Convocation speaker: Luis Alberto Urrea
Introduced by Dr. Claudia Hoffman

The Devil’s Highway Discussion Questions

The Devil’s Highway Resource Guide

Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong 
Paul A. Offit, M.D

Convocation presentation:
Clarkson Professors shared stories and experiences inspired by themes in Padora’s Lab
Dr. Stephen Bird
Dr. Stephanie Schuckers
Dr. Joseph Skufca
Dr. Michelle Crimi (introductions)


Pandora’s Lab Discussion Questions

Pandora’s Lab Resource Guide

Eating Animals
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer 

Convocation presentation: 

A panel discussion between local food producers, educators, and advocates
Gloria McAdam, GardenShare
Joe Regenstein, Prof. Emeritus, Cornell University
Sandy Stauffer, Stauffer Farms
Flip Filippi, littleGrasse Foodworks​
Dr. Tom Langen (moderator)


Eating Animals Discussion Questions

Eating Animals Resource Guide

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Author: William Kamkwamba

Convocation speaker: William Kamkwamba
Introduced by Dr. Bebonchu Atems


The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind Discussion Questions

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s                    
Author: John Elder Robison

Convocation speaker: John Elder Robinson
 Introduced by Dr. Shane Rogers (on electric guitar)


Look Me In the Eye Discussion Questions

The Dinner                                                         
Author: Herman Koch      

Convocation speaker: Herman Koch
Introduced by Dr. Brian Hauser


The Dinner Discussion Questions

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Author: Mary Roach    

Convocation speaker: Mary Roach
Interviewed by Dr. Ken Vissar


Packing for Mars Discussion Questions

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot

Convocation speaker: David “Sonny” Lacks
Interviewed by Dr. Laura Ettinger

The Things They Carried
Author: Tim O’Brien

Convocation speakers: Stephen Peck & John Lancaster
Discussion moderated by Dr. Joseph Duemer

Author: Sherman Alexie

Convocation speaker: Chief James Ransom

Last Night at the Lobster
Author: Stewart O’Nan

Convocation speaker: Stewart O’Nan