Go Big Read sparks campus book clubs

Oct. 18, 2011

by Jenny Price

Three years ago, UW–Madison employees in the Division of Enrollment Management arrived at work to find something unusual perched on their keyboards: peapods.

The edible hint was a way to generate conversation among colleagues and foster interest in the Go Big Read, the university’s common-reading program, and its first selection, “In Defense of Food,” by Michael Pollan.

Since then, members of the enrollment management team have organized book chats and special events connected to Go Big Read, including a pasta demonstration and tour of the farmer’s market connected to Pollan’s book. The group also visited Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery for last year’s selection, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot.

“Our office is able to connect with people we haven’t connected with before,” says Emily Henken, recruitment events coordinator for the Office of Admissions and Recruitment and co-chair of the enrollment management division’s Go Big Read efforts. The group is now planning events for this year’s selection, “Enrique’s Journey,” by Sonia Nazario.

Henken’s division is one of many UW groups seizing the opportunity to be part of a campus-wide initiative and also experience the fun of reading the same book as co-workers.

Employees in the Division of Continuing studies can sign out copies of the book to read and attend a book discussion led by English Professor Emily Auerbach, director of the Odyssey Project, which gives lower-income adults an introduction to college-level courses.

Being part of Go Big Read promotes a sense of collegiality among faculty, academic staff and classified staff, says James Campbell, associate dean for program planning and partnership development.

“It creates a different dynamic and an opportunity for people to interact on a different level … and gets people from all the different types of positions all interacting around a single topic and engaging and discussing and sharing ideas,” Campbell says.

Since 2005, members of the Graduate School Equity & Diversity Committee and Committee on Diversity Initiatives have met monthly for a reading group focused on themes of race and diversity. The 22-member club includes classified staff and unclassified staff, along with some unit directors and assistant deans.

“As soon as we saw the Go Big Read book we said, ‘What a perfect thing to go with our theme,’” says Maya Holtzman, associate director of McNair Scholars Program and the group’s facilitator.

“Enrique’s Journey” tells the story of a boy’s quest to find his mother, after she left him with family in Honduras and moved to the United States to provide a better life for him. The story recounts Enrique’s journey as he heads north, as do thousands of immigrant children, clinging to the tops and sides of freight trains.

“Through storytelling people see themselves,” Holtzman says. “It resonates with people one way or another and helps people understand the diversity of humankind.”

Holtzman says it also helps people learn about and relate to those whom they see in the office every day. “It’s amazing how you can get disconnected from people when you’re busy with your own work.”

Interested in starting your own campus reading group? Some local bookstores are offering a discount on the “Enrique’s Journey”: Books 4 School, Frugal Muse Books, A Room of One’s Own and University Bookstore.