Reading With Authors: Reading as Inquiry Turns 10

By Elizabeth Flynn

Michigan Tech's summer reading program, Reading as Inquiry, began in 2004. Since then, first-year students have been asked to read a common book over the summer and discuss it with their peers in the fall.

Not all students take up the banner, but for those who participate, Reading as Inquiry is an animating introduction to collegiate life. We asked Elizabeth Flynn, professor emerita of humanities, to write about her ten years in the program. And we spoke with a student who learned more than she bargained for when she picked up this year's selection.

A student had been reporting on a review of the novel and was surprised that the reviewer had confused two of the characters. Alexie joined in the conversation, observing that reviewers too often read carelessly. We then got off on other topics. The class knew Alexie's visit was a possibility, and we had prepared questions for him. This was the first time in my many years of teaching that I taught a work in the presence of its author. I can still see myself sharing the front of the classroom with this quite tall man—an amazing teaching moment.

Alexie was on campus as part of Reading as Inquiry, Tech's summer reading program, now in its tenth year, and Johnson accompanied him because he initiated the program and serves as a coordinator. Students, and often their parents, read a common book over the summer and discuss it in small groups led by faculty, administrators, or staff during Orientation Week, the week before classes start. Orientation team leaders and resident assistants, who are with the first-year students throughout Orientation Week, assist in the discussions. Facilitators have come from all areas of the University, and President Glenn Mroz, Vice President for Governmental Relations Dale Tahtinen, Vice President of Student Affairs and Advancement Les Cook, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Bonnie Gorman, Evie Johnson in the Department of Humanities, and many others have been mainstays. Parents are welcome to join discussion groups created for them.

In every case but one, the author has come to campus to give a talk, almost always to a packed Rozsa Center. Overflow crowds have necessitated live streaming to other rooms on campus in recent years. The one exception was Mary Shelley, nineteenth-century author of the novel Frankenstein, the selection in 2004, Reading as Inquiry's inaugural year. Although similar programs are common, Tech is one of the few technological universities to introduce a reading program for the entire first-year class.

Not surprisingly, a technological emphasis was evident in the first three selections: Shelley's Frankenstein, the classic Romantic novel about the unwitting creation of a destructive monster; Feed by M. T. Anderson, a dystopian and futuristic young adult novel; and Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte.

Since 2007, the choices have shifted to humanitarian issues: Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, and Benjamin Ajak's They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan; Susan Carol McCarthy's Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands; Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian; Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle; and Conor Grennan's Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal.

Ironically, one of the most popular books was Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time. Enthusiastic Michigan Tech students collected nearly $6,000 in 2008 to support Mortenson's efforts to establish schools for girls in Central Asia. Three years later, a CBS investigation revealed that much of the book was fabricated and that, while many schools had been built, Mortenson's charity was being mismanaged.

The 2013 book, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen, a nonfiction narrative about growing up next to a secret nuclear weapons plant, returned to technological issues and is of special interest to Johnson, whose 2012 book Romancing the Atom: Nuclear Infatuation from the Radium Girls to Fukushima, explores similar themes. This year a celebration of the program's ten years was added to the author talks and facilitated sessions.

Reading as Inquiry began when then-Michigan Tech President Curt Tompkins solicited ideas for initiatives that would make the University a "different kind of place." With Bonnie Gorman '12, who was then in charge of programs for first-year students, Johnson pursued the project, and the pair launched it with two $3,000 anonymous gifts. Since then, Reading as Inquiry has greatly benefitted from generous donations from Dave '72 and Elsa Brule, who have covered all expenses for the past several years.

Students, parents, and facilitators have been enthusiastic. I had a very good experience the first year of the program in that all of the students in my group, mostly majors in chemical engineering, had read Frankenstein, were enthusiastic about it, and some had studied it in high school. The discussion of Feed the next year was enhanced by the enthusiasm of the orientation team leader, who had perfected his own version of "Feedspeak" and wanted to share it with the group. His excitement prompted me in subsequent years to turn over a portion of the discussion to the orientation team leaders and resident assistants. They always have great questions, often ones I would not have asked myself.

Beth Lunde-Stockero, the assistant vice president for student life, has been involved in Reading as Inquiry since its inception. In reflecting on her experiences, she observes, "Students always seem to remember ‘their book' from Orientation, and in addition to the inquiry that takes place in group discussions, they always seem to take away a life lesson from the reading and discussion." If she had to pick just one thing that makes the program successful, she says it is "a unifying inquiry and reflection process for our University community."

Reading as Inquiry brings reading and writing to the foreground for students who are supposedly "non-reading"–oriented due to their math and science interests. Johnson says, "One thing we have learned is that indeed many of the new students do enjoy reading. For those who don't, many have mentioned how much they really liked ‘reading an entire book.'

And, because we have invited parents to come during the move-in weekend to discuss the book, we have several nice stories of how much the families enjoyed reading the book together—some in audio books."

In May, I taught my last class as a professor in the Department of Humanities. It wasn't really my last class, though, since I will continue participating in Reading as Inquiry for some years to come. I wouldn't miss it.

End of Innocence

by Marcia Goodrich

Rocky Flats can happen anywhere

Summer reading programs can reveal new worlds to students taking their first tentative steps into college life. Sometimes the insights—on poverty, racism, family dynamics—can be life changing.

But for one Michigan Tech student, the 2013 Reading as Inquiry selection revealed a sinking suspicion, if not the uncomfortable truth, that she and the author were living a parallel tragedy.

To protect her privacy, we will call her Melissa.

The first time she read the book, Melissa galloped straight over the sentence that would transform how she saw herself and her community. Later, she decided to read the book again. “I figured I'd find some sort of emotional connection, because of the people dealing with cancer," she explains. “That's when I caught the line. It said that groundwater contamination causes brain tumors in females."

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats is author Kristen Iverson's story of growing up near the Rocky Flats atomic weapons plant in Colorado; the toxic, radioactive waste that was secretly released from the facility; and the peculiar cancers that infected children living nearby.

Melissa has never lived near a covert Cold War weapons factory that loosed deadly plutonium on the local citizenry. Still, she has her own strange cancer, a brain tumor that was discovered when she was twelve. She has received proton radiation treatment, and it seems to have kept the tumor in check. But, like Rocky Flats, it's always lurking in the background.

“They think I was born with it, or got it very young," she says. It's not hereditary, and it's quite rare. Nevertheless, her mother has the same cancer, diagnosed when Melissa was just a year old. And so does the woman living next door. Melissa once believed it had to do with something they ate. But after reading Full Body Burden for the second time, she began to wonder.

“I thought, ‘Something weird is going on here,'" she says. She remembered seeing an old drainpipe oozing red gunk not far from her home. The pipe, she discovered, was draining the old township dump, which had been capped and then neatly covered up by a residential development.

Melissa looked for it in a US Environmental Protection Agency database. There was nothing about that particular dump, but there were two others not far from her home that were listed as Superfund sites in the 1980s—well before Melissa was born. One was remediated in 2011. Cleanup of the other is ongoing.

According to the EPA, one of the Superfund sites was used for industrial waste disposal with the full knowledge and cooperation of the township. “It was an unlicensed dump, and they put all kinds of things in there: paint, VOCs [volatile organic compounds like dioxin], all sorts of nasty stuff," Melissa said. “The groundwater plumes below the dump extend north and south for seven miles, and they have traces of the chemicals. What happened to us has always been a huge mystery, but now I can say this is a good contender."

Ironically, coping with cancer may have made this revelation easier to shoulder. “Something really big has to happen before I get upset," she says. “I got the treatment that I needed for the tumor, and I know a lot of people who have it a lot worse than I do. All in all, I've been extremely lucky."

Still, the experience has shaken her. “The township knew what was going on, and they still know it," says Melissa. “Sadly, for my family, the damage has already been done."

Her story does not end tied up neatly with a ribbon. No dramatic court cases or multi-million-dollar settlements are pending, no Hollywood screenplays are in the works. “At this point, there's not much we can do," she says. “We have talked about it as a family, and we're convinced there's something in our water, but it's very hard to prove."

Instead of trying to remediate the past, Melissa is looking forward clear eyed, with the knowledge that things are not always as they seem. “If I ever buy a house, I'm going to look at the EPA data to make sure there's no toxic sites in the area," she says. “If you don't know to ask, you'll never find out.

“There's some very creepy stuff out there."

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.