Keshia wrote and published her first children’s book, titled Arianna’s First 5K. The story describes Keshia’s daughter Arianna’s first five-kilometer run, and how that experience made an impact on her life and on the lives of others. Said Dickason: “My goal for the book is to inspire youth of all ages to live a healthy lifestyle that will follow them into adulthood.”
Ed had an essay and article published this summer. His essay “Directing on the Thrust Stage: The Two Room vs. One Room Concept” is included in the new acting textbook Acting Exercises for Non-Traditional Staging published by Routledge Press and written by K theatre arts alumna Anjalee Deshpande Hutchinson ’95. His article “I Finally Saw the Greek Theatres: Impressions of Teaching Undergraduate Theatre History” can be found in the most recent issue of the academic journal Theatre Topics.
A frequent contributor to Kalamazoo College’s LuxEsto and BeLight, David also is a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Ill. He is the founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David is a regular contributor of restaurant reviews and food-related articles for Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, TimeOut Chicago, and Chicago Reader, which published his seven-part guide to regional Mexican food in the city. He has also contributed food writing to blogs such as the Local Beet and Grubstreet Chicago. With his friend Michael Gebert (creator of “Sky Full of Bacon” video podcasts), David hosted a cable documentary on Hispanic chow at Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market, and he has just completed working on a video about “Taste of Melrose Park.” A returning guest on WLS and WGN AM radio, David produces the “Soundbites” series on the James Beard-nominated Eight Forty-Eight (Chicago Public Radio, WBEZ, 91.5FM); these radio pieces examine how Chicago chefs use sound in their kitchens. David was featured on “Good Morning, America,” “Chicago, Tonight,” and Nippon TV when he developed recipes for preparing seasonal cicadas, which invaded Chicagoland during the spring of 2007.
Retirement, or “retirement,” can be as alive and crackling as the mind is curious and courageous. So it is with Gail. Her recent writing is incandescent. Her poem, “Devastated,” appeared in the Southern Review last spring. Her essay “Gloria,” was published in PHOEBE. “That essay,” Gail wrote, “is about a ‘colored’ baby doll I was given as a little girl, about the suburban relationship to Detroit, and about white racial confusion and anxiety.” Gail is a trenchant and powerful essayist. Her essay, “A Creature, Stirring,” won the New Ohio Review’s nonfiction contest, judged by Elena Passarello. The essay is part of Gail’s just finished memoir, Widow’s Walk.
Gail keeps busy in other ways besides writing. Last month she became chair of the YWCA-Kalamazoo Board of Directors. She has offered several writing workshops locally, on generating memoir (at Kazoo Books and two branches of the Kalamazoo Public Library) and on writing from life’s thresholds (at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters in Grand Rapids). She also co-facilitated three workshops on building white anti-racist allies for the local organization SHARE–headed by alumna Donna (Coleman) Odom ’67. Last November Gail co-facilitated a fourth workshop, with local poet/activist Denise Miller, at the Summit on Racism.
Rebecca, who just started her new position of instructor of English at Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College, has also signed her first book contract. She will be writing about the rhetorical representations of five canonical Jack the Ripper victims. Her book will be published through McFarland & Company, Inc.
Before first-year students even arrive at Kalamazoo College they are shaping their class into a cohesive educational community. By way of K’s Summer Common Reading program, now in its 15th year, incoming first-years read the same book at the same time, connecting not only with their classmates through this common-but-uncommon experience but also with the many faculty and staff and the significant number of current students who also read the book and together share their insights afterwards.
“It gives the students something to talk about, something besides ‘where are you from?’” says Dean of the First Year and Advising Zaide Pixley. “It’s all part of the teaching moment.”
Pixley helped launch and expand the Summer Common Reading program in 1999 and subsequent years. “I love to read,” Pixley says. “And I wanted to give students a way to enter the world of ideas.” In 2000, with the support of the Provost’s office and Student Development, the program became official.
“The first book we chose was Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver,” says Pixley. “But we didn’t ask the author to come to campus. We soon decided that should be one of the criteria—that the author be here for orientation, meet with the students, and later, if possible, return for that class’s commencement.”
The book of choice in 2000 was Independence Day by Richard Ford, an author whom then-Provost Greg Mahler knew personally and had invited to attend. Writer-in-residence Diane Seuss, Professor of English Andy Mozina, Mahler, and Pixley were the original members of the committee that chose the books and organized the events. Membership on the committee has changed over time. Associate Professor of English Marin Heinritz was a member for many years and was responsible for bringing to campus journalist David Finkel, the program’s first nonfiction writer. Neither she, Seuss, nor Mozina are active members of the committee today, but Pixley’s presence has been a constant.
Is the reading experience relevant, even (or especially) when a book’s protagonist differs significantly from the predominantly 18-year-old readers?
“Oh my,” Seuss chortles, recalling the first-year students meeting the Ford. “A student asked Richard Ford how he expected young people to relate to his middle-aged, white male real estate agent protagonist. His answer: ‘Are you a Danish prince? If not, then don’t read Hamlet!’”
Mozina nods. “I’ve seen great discussions happen. I often see the energy grow during the course of the author’s time on campus, with students saying that now they understand and like the book a lot better than they thought they would, or did initially. By the time some authors left, the students seemed ready to adopt them.”
As the criteria for the book choice developed, Pixley made one point immoveable.
“The author must come to campus,” she says. “We look for someone who makes a good guest, who is an engaging speaker and enjoys interacting with students. That’s what makes our summer reading program different than the programs at many other schools—the presence of the author.”
Committee members meet to discuss new and upcoming authors that fit the bill.
“New book and author choices are challenging,” Pixley admits. “We have no flexibility on dates. They have to be here when the first-year students come in. We look for books that have been nominated for prizes, books that are being talked about. Although she isn’t on the committee this year, Di [Seuss] is very plugged in, she has 2,000 Facebook friends and they are almost all writers. An A list and a B list begins to take shape, and we get student peer leaders involved, too.”
Committee members read lots of books and talk about authors who might be an appropriate and feasible guest. Criteria include the content of the book, of course, the way in which it can represent a boundary-crossing for the students, and an author who is willing to be here and participate in person. “We all keep our eyes out for ‘the next big one,’” said former committee member Seuss, “often finding the perfect fit with a younger author on the rise, like Chimamanda Adichie, who visited us with her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, and has since won the Orange Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and a MacArthur Fellowship.”
Gail Griffin, professor emeritus of English, has been involved with the program since its inception. She adds: “We’ve often joked about it: either the day before or the day after an author visits, she or he will get a MacArthur award/Pulitzer Prize/National Book Award nomination. The track record is quite amazing; it defies logic.”
“It has to be good literature,” Pixley states. “We look for something that is engaging to young people and doesn’t come with 400 pages of footnotes. Coming of age themes are good, and we want a book that is intercultural in some way, and that doesn’t have to mean that the book has to be about different countries. Detroit can have a different culture from Kalamazoo, too. We look for books that can foster intercultural understanding.”
The book choice of summer 2014 covers that cultural boundary, in fact. Incoming members of the class of 2018 read We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. The 2013 debut novel depicts the impossible situation of the person in exile, in this case a child leaving a beloved homeland beset with political turmoil and violence, poverty, starvation, and illness. As she grows to adulthood in a new place she realizes that she is caught between two cultures without being home in either. Bulawayo won the 2014 PEN-Hemingway Award, the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, and the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2014. The novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.
Anna Gough ’15 is a first-year experience coordinator along with Bryan Olert ’15. Both experienced the value of bonding over a book that often pushed their comfort zones.
“I still think about the book we read when I was a freshman,” Gough says. “In 2011, it was The Good Soldiers by David Finkel. I would never have picked it up on my own.”
“It’s really the whole idea of liberal arts,” Olert, a history major, adds. “The Summer Common Reading program challenges you to read outside of your field, all over the field.”
Now seniors, Gough and Olert helped plan all of this year’s first-year events, and both consider the reading program their favorite.
“As an English major, it was fun to organize something I enjoyed so much in earlier years,” says Gough. “I felt like I was a part of creating the future for the new students.”
“And it’s great job experience in event planning, networking, organizing,” Olert adds.
Beginning to end, the Summer Common Reading program has drawn together not only freshmen, but the entire campus, as older students find themselves picking up the chosen book as well, wanting in on the hot topic of the campus. Faculty and staff are involved, too, teaching to the book or participating as discussion group leaders.
“The program asks a lot of faculty,” Pixley admits. “Yet K faculty members are always game. I’ve been asked—how do I get people to read the book and lead discussion groups? People here are willing to step out, willing to try new things.”
“We prepare the peer leaders and discussion leaders, write a lesson plan, host the guest, and do all of the often complex negotiations with agents and publishers to bring the next writer to campus,” Seuss says.
“I can tell you that very few people comprehend the work involved,” says Griffin. “In choosing the book, in negotiating with the writer to come to Kalamazoo, in organizing the visit and the sub-components of the visit, in turning around the students’ submitted questions and consolidating them for the author, in shepherding the author around. That detailed, thoughtful, exhausting work is what has made the program go.”
While the committee does prepare a lesson plan and suggested questions for the discussion group leaders, Pixley says that “everyone is free to improvise as they see fit.”
Reading contemporary books rather than classics, Pixley says, is another aspect of the program that differentiates Kalamazoo College from other institutions that have started similar programs.
“The National Association of Scholars singled us out as being subversive in our book choices,” Pixley smiles. Challenging students to think and question, however, is part of the program’s goal.
Says Seuss: “Each book lands differently, and each entering class receives it in its own way. What I love is that the reverberations continue long after the writer has left campus; students live with the book, in one way or another, for the rest of their lives. Students in my first year seminar often refer back to the book or something the author said, and I hear seniors doing the same thing. Maybe the best sign of the program’s success is when we witness students struggling to make connections, to approach and understand differences.”
“Our student body is more diverse than ever,” says Stacy Nowicki, library director at Kalamazoo College’s Upjohn Library and a member of this year’s committee. “We have students from many different areas in the United States and the world and from different socio-economic backgrounds. The Summer Common Reading book helps students learn to interact with someone different than themselves. It gives them entry to each other. This summer’s book is about the immigrant experience, and any student coming to Kalamazoo College may feel like they are immigrating to a new community. Through discussing the book, they can bring up their own issues.”
Nowicki joined the committee this year because of her involvement with the Reading Together program. Reading Together is administered by the Kalamazoo Public Library and has much in common with Kalamazoo College’s program. In both, an entire community reads the same book, joins in discussion, and meets the author.
“The important thing is for students to feel connected,” Nowicki says. “It’s a good way for professors and staff to get introduced to the incoming students, too. I’m guessing in that way it helps retention. And the discussion groups help students learn how to express their viewpoints and defend them while listening to the viewpoints of others.”
Griffin adds: “If you lined up all the books that have been chosen, they cover an amazing array of contemporary writers and a mighty inclusive list of perspectives and issues of the sort that we want our newest students to begin thinking about: race, economics, global politics, gender, sexuality, nationality, international issues, American issues, immigration, ‘home’ and leaving home, you name it.”
Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of the 2012 Summer Common Reading book, Once Upon a River, offers her perspective as a participating author. “It was a great honor and a thrill to have all the freshmen and many of the upper class folks read Once Upon a River. Kalamazoo College students are conscientious scholars and careful readers, and they had a lot of smart questions to ask. The world I presented in the book was very different from the world of the students, so it was interesting to see how they grappled to understand the choices my protagonist made, which were often so different from what they would have chosen. As an author it is always great fun to be surrounded by smart people who have read your book.”
Pixley smiles to recall some of the discussion around Campbell’s book. “Oh, I’m still hearing complaints about Margo, Bonnie’s character in the novel. Why did Margo do this, why did Margo choose that. But Margo had different circumstances in her life, and it was a different time. It’s wonderful how invested students can get.”
The interaction between author and students, all agree, can be one of the most rewarding parts of the experience.
“So often their first reactions to the texts have been resistant, defiant, because the committee has rightly selected challenging texts at the forefront of current fiction, and that material is often difficult, not easy reads,” says Griffin. “And then you watch them come to terms with it, chew on it, hear the author, stand in line for hours to meet the author, and suddenly—the book is theirs. I have seen an incoming class become a class over three days because of this program.”
Seuss lists favorite memories of students interacting with authors: “Chang-Rae Lee flying out of New York City and joining us just a few days after September 11, 2001. The students starting a Chimamanda Adichie Adoration Facebook page. Junot Diaz’s sass. Vaddey Ratner talking about her childhood as a captive of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the way she greeted people with the namaskara, her beauty.”
Heinritz most strongly recalls the moments “students got turned on by what they’d read or something the authors said. Often, years later they would bring up something Junot Diaz or David Finkel had said about writing when they were on campus, and it would become part of the fabric of that day’s class discussions.”
She also cites the generosity of the authors. “So many of them agree to offer a craft talk for student writers while they are on campus,” Heinritz says. “David Finkel got real with journalism students about what the profession requires and where it is headed. Bonnie Jo Campbell gave practical advice to aspiring fiction writers.” Finkel even offered to read and critique Heinritz’ writing, “which he did and was very helpful,” she says. “I consider him a friend. I know Di has also developed this kind of relationship with a couple of the authors, especially Chimamanda.”
Pixley nods. She remembers many of those moments, and more. The Summer Common Reading program is her labor of love.
“It’s a thrill,” she says. “To hear an author reading to the students, and the students are so quiet, listening so carefully, that you can hear the pages turn.”
Summer Common Reading Program Books
(1999 Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams)
2000 Richard Ford, Independence Day
2001 Chang-rae Lee, A Gesture Life
2002 Ha Jin, Waiting
2003 Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
2004 Aleksandar Hemon, Nowhere Man
2005 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus
2006 Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated
2007 Edward P. Jones, The Known World
2008 Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
2009 Rachel Kushner, Telex From Cuba
2010 Colson Whitehead, Sag Harbor
2011 David Finkel, The Good Soldiers
2012 Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River
2013 Vaddey Ratner, In the Shadow of the Banyan
2014 NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names
Kalamazoo College Professor of Psychology Siu-Lan Tan exits Olds-Upton Hall, walks across the campus quad awash in the deep green of mid-summer, sits under a towering maple tree, and removes her laptop from a bag. Pasted to the keyboard are yellow, pink, and baby blue Post-It notes capturing reminders, ideas, and appointments.
“I’m a Post-It person,” she says.
Tan, a professor of psychology at K, wouldn’t disagree if you interpreted the paper stuck to the computer as a slight aversion to technology—or at least social media. She is not on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or any other similar platform. Until a year ago, she didn’t even know what a blog was.
She does now, however, and a lot of people are noticing.
In September of last year, Tan received a phone call from the senior producer of the World Science Festival, sort of like a TED talk organization but devoted to the hard sciences. The group was putting together an event focusing on neuroscience and film music and had discovered a film-music study that Tan had published, and which an esteemed panel of artists – including filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen and actor Alec Baldwin – wanted to replicate on stage and broadcast over the Internet.
It was a big honor, Tan says, but she had to decline due to copyright issues she thought might creep-up. The producer called back. Baldwin was disappointed, she said, as was another panelist, Tufts University neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel, Ph.D. Instead, Dr. Patel would describe Tan’s research during the public presentation and organizers wondered if Tan might write a blog post about her study.
Tan agreed, and called her sister – herself an author – and asked what exactly a blog post was, and how to write one.
“That was my first trial,” Tan says. “But it paved the way for what would come next.”
Editors at Psychology Today, the popular general interest magazine published every two months, had wanted Tan to contribute content to their website for years. The journal asked to publish her post for the festival. Then Oxford University Press asked to do the same on their blog site.
Both were so impressed with Tan’s writing that they asked her to be a regular contributor to their sites. And that’s where Tan’s burgeoning notoriety began.
By October, Tan had her own personal blog on the Psychology Today site, named “What Shapes Film?” The posts present an interesting analysis of the often overlooked psychological aspects of films and how human developmental themes resonate within them.
Other posts offer content that can be both quirky and thought-provoking. Examples include “Why You Can’t Take a Pigeon to the Movies” (hint: Where you see scenes that are fluid, a pigeon would observe each frame due to its highly developed sense for visual stimuli) and “Gravity: Developmental Themes in Space,” which explores themes of human growth, development and rebirth.
Some of her work takes a closer look at viral videos, ones that become immensely popular due to their inherent humor or heart-tugging message. But where you laugh heartily or shed a tear, Tan sees more.
An example of that deeper perception was her post, “Why Does This Baby Cry When Her Mother Sings,” which garnered her significant recognition on the Psychology Today site. That post explored the developmental phenomena of “emotional contagion,” where humans absorb and reflect the intense emotions around them—in this case, a mother singing sweetly and passionately to her 10-month old daughter in a viral video viewed more than 30 million times. Interestingly, within 24 hours of publishing the post, Tan was surprised to hear from the baby’s mother herself, Amanda Leroux, who thanked her for the article and for sensing the special emotional bond with her daughter, Mary Lynne. Tan’s post was No. 22 on Psychology Today’s “Top 25 Posts of 2013,” competing against 13,000 posts that year. The same post on Oxford University Press’ blog was the fourth most popular post there last year.
“It can be an uphill battle to blog about things that are educational, or at least deal with more of the fundamental and research-oriented aspects of psychology,” Tan says. “But when you can present a fascinating research study or two in a fun and interesting way, people are more likely to read it and take away something that’s useful. People are more likely to learn.
“Most people are interested in movies. I wanted to do something that wasn’t esoteric. I wanted the blog to be inclusive and positive. I wanted people to read it and say, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting. I don’t think I will experience that the same way again.’”
In addition to her penchant for blogging, Tan is a published co-author of two books, The Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance and The Psychology of Music in Multimedia. Two more books are in the works, she says, dealing with music and child development.
Psychology isn’t just about counseling, and Tan is quick to point that out. The discipline also deals with revealing the diverse facets of human nature, what we have in common and how the mind and behavior works.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in music at Pacific Union College, Tan began studying the pedagogy of piano, with the goal of teaching music as a career. When she took a required developmental psychology class, everything changed.
“I fell in love,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is the greatest thing. Why didn’t I get into this before?’ I kind of took the long route.”
So Tan dropped out of her master’s degree program and enrolled in California State University Sacramento where she took enough psychology classes to get into a graduate psychology program. She earned a Ph.D. degree several years later from Georgetown University, with a focus on developmental psychology and the psychology of music.
She came to K in 1998, where she began teaching courses in child psychology and human development.
“I love, love teaching,” she says. “The blogs are an extension to my teaching but on a larger scope with a more diverse audience. It’s also an opportunity for me to continue to be curious about many things and keep learning. I have to read extensively and fact-check every post.”
In fact, many of her blog post ideas have come from the K community, she says. She consistently bounces ideas off of her students and colleagues, and has formulated posts based off themes discussed in her courses. K students often ask her to blog about something. Her husband, himself a filmmaker and blogger, also serves as an idea generator and sounding board for ideas, she says.
For instance, a blog post titled “3 Reasons Why We’re Drawn to Faces in Film” includes research published in 2007 and co-conducted with K alumnus Matt Bezdek ’07, who now holds a Ph.D. degree in psychology and is still doing research on psychology and film, Tan says.
Another post, “Video Games: Do You Play Better With the Sound On Video Games: Do You Play Better With the Sound On or Off?” included research co-conducted with K alumnus John Baxa ’09.
“K students and classes are the primary inspiration for the blogs,” she says. “I’d say 80 percent of the posts relate in some way to the College. They are really our blogs. There is no disconnection. They belong, in many ways, to K.”
Watch The Stories They Tell, a professionally produced documentary about Siu-Lan’s developmental psychology class’ Co-Authorship Project, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., in Dewing Hall Room 103 during Homecoming Weekend, Saturday, October 18.