Going Viral: Writing Program’s Summer Read Focuses on Ebola Virus

Every year, incoming Rutgers University–Camden students – regardless of their prospective majors – who are enrolled in any of the writing program’s gateway and developmental English composition courses are given a summer read.

EbolaPbk.inddHowever, this year, the program looked to expand the impact of a common book for first-year students by linking the required reading to wider, cultural conversations across campus and beyond, says William FitzGerald, the new director of the writing program and an associate professor of English at Rutgers–Camden.

This year’s selection is David Quammen’s timely text Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus (Norton). Written by one of the leading science writers today, the book is a lucid, well-researched account of Ebola’s mysterious origins in West Africa and its high toll on human populations.

“When students think about writing, they tend to think of literary texts and focus strictly on the humanities,” says FitzGerald. “The focus on this book acknowledges that Rutgers–Camden is expanding and increasingly becoming an attractive destination – and hub of discussion – for scholars focusing on global concerns and the health sciences.”

Quammen’s latest work, extracted and updated from his 2013 book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (Norton), offers a sharp contrast to the sensationalism and fearmongering of last fall, at the height of the most recent Ebola outbreak, says FitzGerald.

Just as importantly, he says, the book gives students a prime example of first-rate research and writing, and a head start on developing the critical reading and writing skills necessary to complete the intensive writing program.

“It is an elegant, beautifully written book,” he says. “Students can read and study this book, and know that this is what excellent work looks like. They should aspire to have such attention to detail in every aspect of the writing process.”

October 13, 2011 / Shown: William Fitzgerald / Rutgers Camden Faculty and Staff portraits / Photo by Bob Laramie

William Fitzgerald. Photo by Bob Laramie

According to FitzGerald, students will spend the first couple weeks during the fall semester probing the book – studying and discussing the research and writing techniques used – and gaining a feel for writing at the college level and beyond. They will then have their own opportunity to follow suit, sharing their perspectives through a series of assignments and by contributing to an online blog.

The writing program is also planning a series of public events, including panel discussions and guest-speaker appearances, to extend discussion of the book – and the significant issues that it addresses – beyond the writing classroom.

“We hope that students throughout the campus community will read the book and join in the conversation,” he says.

FitzGerald notes that the selection of Quammen’s eye-opening book is just the first of many summer reads that will explore culturally relevant issues.

“Every year, we’ll pick a new book, with a new issue affecting human culture, and generate energy around the discussion,” he says, adding, “It’s the start of an annual tradition that will also support the mission of the anticipated Rutgers–Camden Writers’ House – set to open this fall – as a resource and meeting place, where ideas are examined and debated.”

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