Books seen as unifying force

Project: Howard Community College has built a yearlong program around a single text.

Columbia

Howard Live

October 07, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Howard Community College is trying to make sure its diverse student, faculty and staff have at least one thing in common: a book.

This year, the college launched the Book Connection program to encourage students and faculty to interact around one book: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman.

The text is being used in English, math and nursing classes; it is the subject of lectures and community events; and it is fodder for discussion groups.

Many colleges across the country have used one book as a discussion point, often during freshman orientation. And cities - including Baltimore - have sponsored "one book" literary programs. But HCC is one of a few institutions that has built a yearlong program around a single text.

"So far, the feedback we're getting from people is extremely positive," said Kathleen Hetherington, vice president of student services. "We couldn't have picked a better first book because you can look at it from so many different angles."

The book, published in 1997, tells the true story of Lia Lee, a child of Hmong refugees from Laos who was diagnosed with epilepsy in the 1980s. Fadiman wrote about the ways Western medicine clashed with Hmong spiritual practices, the struggle of doctors and family members to do what they felt was best for Lia, and the history of the Hmong people.

In choosing the book, "the first thing, I think, was that it was very interdisciplinary," said Tara Hart, chair of the division of English/world languages and the project's book selection subcommittee. She said the book encompasses history, health, culture, philosophy and other areas.

Second, she said, "It's definitely encouraging people to talk interculturally ... but not from a place of anger and emotion."

Fadiman agreed that her book covers a variety of areas. "It's a book about seeing things from more than one angle," she said. "The whole point of the book is there are benefits to having different perspectives."

Fadiman started writing about Lia for a magazine article, and over eight years the project grew into a full-length book. While she found the subject compelling, she said, "I never thought it would still be alive so many years after publication."

Fadiman, who has been editor of The American Scholar literary quarterly since 1999, lives in rural western Massachusetts with her husband, who is a writer, and their two children. She wrote a book of essays, Ex Libris : Confessions of a Common Reader, and will start a three-year appointment as a writer in residence at Yale University next year.

She said her suggestion for any community reading project is "to pick a book that can be argued about. ... There is no better way for students to learn they can be friends with people they don't agree with."

John Hayes, editor of the student newspaper, HCC Times, said the quality of the book, and of Fadiman's presentation on campus last month, helped engage many students.

"It takes ... learning outside the classroom, and puts it into something tangible," Hayes said. "There is a continuity. Students start to see the connections between different curriculums."

In addition to the presentation by Fadiman, a Hmong individual spoke at convocation; a video about a Hmong shaman will be shown on campus this month; and a speaker on epilepsy is planned for next month.

Hart said several English classes are reading and discussing the book. Patti Turner, a biology professor, assigned a research paper on epilepsy for her cell biology class and used the book as a case study for an honors seminar on ethics.

Brian Gray, a professor of mathematics, has written math problems that use examples from the book. He also used the traditional embroidery of the Hmong people to illustrate aspects of geometry.

Literature is not usually part of the math curriculum, but, Gray said, "using the Hmong designs as an example in the real world might pique somebody's interest."

The college started planning Book Connections in April 2003, narrowing 40 nominations to three finalists. The committee is accepting nominations for next year's book.

Prince George's Community College provided one model for the program. That school's Book Bridge project has been running for seven years with a similar focus on holding public events over two semesters and using one book in many classes.

"It brings people together in a kind of safe haven to discuss issues," said Mary Brown, director of the PGCC project. "We're building a bridge to other cultures and ethnicities one plank at a time."

Brown added that when students see one text approached in a variety of ways, "They begin to think of their education, I think, in a more holistic way."

Information on the HCC Book Connection program: www.howardcc.edu/bookconnection.

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