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.

Our Current Conversation ~ 2020

Due to NY State restrictions on public gatherings and in the interest of public health, University Convocation featuring Step Afrika! has been cancelled for this fall, as have the associated readings and discussions.  The Common Book Project Committee is committed to working with Step Afrika! in order to host this exciting performance in-person at a future date in accordance with public health and State directives.

This year, the Common Book Committee has been inspired to diversify. With a focus on the theme What’s Your Story?, the Committee has 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 are 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 intends that these themes of storytelling and identity will continue to be presented during the academic year through a series of campus Convocations which celebrate the diverse cultures and stories of others.

The Committee is excited to announce that in conjunction with this theme, the Van Sickle Endowed Lecture at Convocation this fall will be a performance by Step Afrika!

Step Afrika! is the world’s first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping—a polyrhythmic, percussive dance form that uses the body as an instrument. With stepping at its foundation, as practiced by historically African American fraternities and sororities, the Company integrates song, storytelling, humor, and audience participation in each performance. Step Afrika!’s mission is to educate, motivate, and inspire young people through arts education programs that emphasize their core values of teamwork, commitment, and discipline.


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