Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Brief History

UW-Stout’s Into the Book program, named in honor of the program’s first selection, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, was born at a Dec. 3, 2002 meeting of the university’s First Year Experience Subcommittee.

At that meeting, chaired by Associate Dean of Students Shirley Murphy, subcommittee member Jacqueline Bonneville gave an overview of common reading programs across the nation and the decision was made that in-coming freshmen at Stout would profit from such a program. As the newly elected chair of the English and Philosophy department, I was theoretically a member of the subcommittee but, because I had taken a sabbatical during the fall semester, our former department chair, Susan Thurin, served in my stead. She also agreed to chair the Into the Book Committee, which was to consist of a mix of faculty, staff and students. Committee members were to choose a book to be used in the summer and fall of 2003. I took over chairing the committee the following year.

To prepare them for the Into the Book program, incoming freshmen are notified that they will be expected to read the same book over the summer as a preview to the kind of intellectual activity that will await them at the university. When they arrive in August, after having presumably read the book, they are placed in discussion groups which are led by a wide range of faculty, staff and student volunteers. Later in the semester, the book is to be used in freshman English classes and in any other university courses for which it is relevant.

Meeting primarily during the spring semester the committee looks at a wide range of books before making a decision. Everyone in the university is invited to contribute recommendations and attend a committee meeting to argue for their choices. In general, committee members look for books that are of high intellectual and artistic merit and try to balance a wide range of concerns that have been brought forward by various members of the university community. Thus we have been asked to make sure that our selections in various years will appeal to both men and women, deal with multicultural and disability issues, deal with controversial topics (but not topics that are too controversial!), balance liberal and conservative viewpoints, help freshmen develop their leadership skills, and so on.

Our selections over the years have included the Krakauer book, the true tale of a young man who attempts to find himself in the Alaskan wilderness with tragic results; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian science-fiction novel concerning the importance of books and free thought; Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, an examination of the struggles of the working poor in America; Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a graphic novel depicting the Holocaust and its on-going effect on one American family; and, most recently, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s short story collection concerning the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Former English department faculty member Mark Decker and current faculty members Jean- Marie Dauplaise and Michael Martin have served as trainers for the Into the Book discussion leaders.

The fall of 2008 Into the Book selection is local author Michael Perry’s Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. In turns hysterically funny and deeply tragic, this New York Times best-selling collection of essays recounts Perry’s return to his home town of New Auburn, Wis., after 12 years away . Although Perry’s primary goal is to find a quiet place to write, he also joins the volunteer fire and rescue department, leading to a variety of adventures. It is the committee’s hope that this year’s crop of freshmen will find Population 485 as enjoyable and worthwhile as we do.

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