UW-Madison launches Go Big Read book program

Aug. 27, 2009

by Gwen Evans

When thousands of people read the same book, it's bound to get people talking. And when that book's subject matter has passionate defenders and critics, it's sure to get readers together to share their thoughts, reactions and opinions.

That's precisely the goal of Go Big Read, the university's new common-reading program.

Reading programs are popular on college and university campuses, but they are typically limited to incoming students as a way to help ease their transition during the first weeks of college.

“It is an interesting, controversial example of public argument on an extremely important issue. The book unsettles boundaries between public and private, science and culture, expertise and vernacular knowledge, and has important policy implications, especially in the context of ongoing energy and health debates.”

Ryan Solomon, associate lecturer, will use the common book in Communication Arts 262

The UW-Madison idea, however, is to engage all readers — students, faculty, staff and the community — in a shared, academically focused experience. For Go Big Read, it's not so much about the book as it is about the process of intellectual exploration and academic challenge.

That said, UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin selected "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," by Michael Pollan, from a short list compiled by a review committee from nearly 400 nominated titles as the book for Go Big Read's inaugural year.

"'In Defense of Food' had strong support from campus constituents," Martin says. "It raises issues of importance to people from a wide range of disciplines; it will engage people on and off the campus; and it will promote lively discussion. These are the purposes of the book project."

Pollan's book examines modern American food culture, nutrition and health. These subject areas create fertile ground for discussion and thought that go beyond the obvious food-related topics. To help generate those deeper explorations, "In Defense of Food" will be used for classroom instruction and integrated into nearly 50 courses, including anthropology, psychology, insect control and French.

Cathy Middlecamp, distinguished faculty associate with a joint appointment in the Department of Chemistry and Integrated Liberal Studies Program, will integrate Pollan's book into her course, Chemistry 108: Chemistry in Context. The class engages students with real-world issues that connect to chemistry, such as global climate change, air quality, and energy and food production.

To use Pollan's book, Middlecamp will explore topics relating to growing and eating corn — its chemical composition and nutritional value, of course — but also associated topics such as corn's impact on the environment and the use of high fructose corn syrup in many processed foods.

"My goal is to have my students both learn chemistry and to become curious as to how chemistry can apply to complex issues that may not have simple answers," says Middlecamp.

Ryan Solomon, associate lecturer with the Department of Communication Arts, will use the common book in Communication Arts 262, Theory and Practice of Argumentation and Debate.

He believes Pollan's book will be an excellent tool for the class.

"It is an interesting, controversial example of public argument on an extremely important issue. The book unsettles boundaries between public and private, science and culture, expertise and vernacular knowledge, and has important policy implications, especially in the context of ongoing energy and health debates," says Solomon.

In the classroom, students will analyze the book to see how Pollan defines evidence and how he has used it. It will also generate discussions and provide topics for final class debates.

"I think it will be a great way to get students arguing with one another, and more importantly, it will provide a great way to get students to broaden the way they think about argument," says Solomon. "The main thing I hope they will take away is that Pollan's book, both in the critiques he makes and in the problems in his own argument, represents the inability to completely establish the 'facts' of any issue, and that there will always be a place and a need for argument."

In addition to the curricular inclusion, tie-in events related to the culture and politics of food, sustainable agriculture, public health and environmental journalism are planned throughout the year. The program has a book-discussion kit and has trained 65 facilitators to spur discussion of the book in groups on campus and in the community.

These include discussion sessions facilitated by faculty members, garden tours, open-house events at agricultural research facilities and lectures. Readers may also participate in a virtual book group by sharing thoughts and ideas on the Go Big Read blog

Pollan will also visit campus at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 24, for a discussion of the book in a free lecture at the Kohl Center. His visit is sponsored by the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities, with partnerships from several campus and community groups.