Professors share passions through reading groups

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English professor Ellen Bayer regretted taking “Moby Dick,” a personal favorite off of the syllabus for her early American literature class, but knew it would take too long to do justice to the rather lengthy novel.

The response from a few of her students? Disappointment. The remedy to this small setback? Form a reading group.

“Two of [the students] were game, and so I said let’s turn this into something larger for the other students in the class,” Bayer said.

She soon started thinking of ways to involve both the campus and the community in reading the renowned text. After giving information about the group to students, faculty, staff and community members, Bayer was pleased with the response.

“I got responses from biology, from physics, somebody from ITAP,” Bayer said. “I think ‘Moby Dick’ is one of those books that’s part of our cultural consciousness, but a lot of people haven’t read it.”

On Feb. 23, the group met for the first time and Bayer’s planning paid off. The group was a mix of students, faculty, and even drew in one Greencastle resident.

“There was a lot of energy, everyone was excited and everyone really felt that it wasn’t what they had expected,” Bayer said. “I think I even heard, I couldn’t believe it was funny or I couldn’t believe how much I liked it, so it was a great meeting.”

Bayer’s enthusiasm for “Moby Dick” made it easy to start the group and help facilitate the discussion. Other professors have also found that the reading group program at the Prindle Institute for Ethics allows them to share their passions with others. Since the reach of these groups is wider than the classroom, professors such as Cas Mudde, the Nancy Schaenen Visiting Scholar, saw the opportunity to draw in participants from all backgrounds.

“I thought about, OK let’s try to take a book that is of interest to quite a lot of people outside of just one discipline,” Mudde said. “I think that is the essence of particularly liberal arts schools and particularly schools like DePauw, which does pretty much everything collectively rather than by discipline.”

Mudde chose the book “Nuptial Nation” by Priscilla Yamin for his reading group. He had previously worked with Yamin at the University of Oregon.

“I saw her present a paper which was based on this book which was based on her Ph.D. and it described marriage as a political institution and I thought that that was a really interesting take,” Mudde said. “I thought that’s an interesting book.”

 

Margaret Distler/The DePauw

English professor Ellen Bayer leads a reading group discussion over “Moby Dick” last Wednesday evening.

His next step was to take this initial interest and turn it into the basis for a reading group that first met on Feb. 10.

 

“The issue of marriage as a political institution first of all pretty much addresses an issue that is relevant to almost everyone’s life,” Mudde said. “I felt that that would be of a broader interest than rather working on something that is specifically political science.”

Computer science professor Doug Harms’s interest in service learning also led him to construct a reading group. He hopes to share his passion for service learning with other professors who may want to try building it into their curriculum.

“I think a lot of faculty perhaps and maybe even students think of service learning as just going out and volunteering, and to me it’s a lot more than that,” Harms said. “It is academic . . . I called the reading group ‘Service Learning as a Pedagogical Too’ – it’s something we can use as faculty members as teachers to get course academic goals across to our students. “

Mudde and Bayer also spoke passionately about the goals for their groups.

“One of the goals is just to share different opinions about the argument . . . both to look critically at the book, at how it makes its argument as well as to look more broadly at how marriage as a political institution functions and can function,” Mudde said. “To a certain extent it always provides extra insights if you read books together with others.”

Bayer saw her love for “Moby Dick” play out in the members of her group who were experiencing the text for the first time. She described the book as “the dream one” if she had to pick any book for a reading group.

“What I loved from the very beginning of the first meeting is that everyone said, wow, this is not what I imagined, there are so many different layers to it, these kind of larger metaphysical questions that are explored and the language is just so beautiful and poetic,” Bayer said. “I love having the opportunity to kind of reshape people’s perception of the novel and have an appreciation for what it actually is.”