Sunday, August 22, 2010

Michigan Tech’s Reading as Inquiry Program creates community connections

By Samantha Stauch*

HOUGHTON -- Today, Aug. 22, incoming students and families will begin to pour onto the Michigan Tech campus. Students are bringing their gaming consoles, clothing and possibly an interesting story about their trip -- maybe a story explaining just how exactly their parents fit those 32 suitcases into the family’s Volkswagen Beetle.

Although these students come from all over the country, even from all over the world, they will share an important experience that can connect them to the community of the Keweenaw as well as to one another -- Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Some will have read the book over the summer. Others may be reading it now and chuckling at its humor while pondering its serious issues. Alexie's novel is this year's choice for the Reading as Inquiry Program.

Each year, incoming students are asked to read a book for this program, which has many diverse and important goals.

"(It) prepares them for college level reading and helps build connections for them. When students meet for the first time they already have something in common and can talk about the book," said Katie Russell, assistant director of Michigan Tech’s COMPASS (Center for Orientation, Mentoring, Parents, and Academic Student Success) and this year’s co-coordinator for the Reading as Inquiry Program.

This year’s book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, centers around a character named Junior, a high school student growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation. Junior decides that he has to make some major changes. The book discusses the many difficulties and successes Junior encounters while taking the steps that could change his life forever.

"I loved the book!" said Beth Wagner, Michigan Tech’s assistant vice president of Student Life. "It is a coming-of-age story and is a good story for incoming students. It is a good story about transitioning."

Some themes covered in the novel may be difficult to discuss. Alexie addresses alcoholism, eating disorders and poverty. The author specifically focuses on difficulties many Native Americans face living on reservations in the United States.

Native Americans living here in the Keweenaw may identify with some of the issues addressed in the novel.

"I grew up here on the reservation," said Lori Muhlig, Michigan Tech's Native American Outreach coordinator for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. "A lot of what Alexie says about living on a reservation is true."

According to the author’s website,, this novel was based a great deal on Alexie’s own life experiences. The main character, Junior, and Alexie share many parallel characteristics. Both Junior and Alexie are from a Spokane Indian Reservation. Both Junior and Alexie suffer from a condition called hydrocephalus (a condition where there is water on the brain). These similarities along with the clever and often funny cartoons add a very personal element to the writing.

"Alexie is such a good writer and tells stories in a way that moves it along quickly and he’s funny," said Robert Johnson, Department of Humanities professor and co-coordinator of the Reading as Inquiry Program. "(Alexie) takes what might be a bitter issue and makes you laugh about it, but he doesn’t let you off the hook."

Wagner also noted how Alexie engages the reader to contemplate the serious issues beneath the humor.

"I particularly like the author because he’s very introspective," Wagner said. "He doesn’t give anybody a break. He points out the strengths and weaknesses of all his characters."

The process for choosing a book takes about a year, beginning in the fall. A committee is formed that consists of Michigan Tech faculty from all disciplines along with current Michigan Tech students and staff. Throughout the academic year, committee members receive recommendations, review a number of books and narrow the list down to a few contenders. After reading all the books, the committee comes to a consensus on which book will be selected.

The recommendations can come from Michigan Tech faculty, staff, students and community members. One opportunity for students to make suggestions comes at the end of Orientation Week. All new students are asked to take a survey in order to provide feedback about their Orientation experience. At this time they are able to comment on the Reading as Inquiry program and to suggest any books they would like to see the next group of incoming students read.

Along with the official book selection committee, Wagner also headed a second committee, made up of current students that read through this year’s top contenders. The student group’s reading was done in conjunction with the official Reading as Inquiry committee. According to Wagner, this year’s chosen novel was the student group’s first choice as well.

During Orientation week students will have the opportunity to participate in discussion groups. This will be time set aside for a campus-wide discussion about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

These groups will be facilitated by discussion leaders who come from the Student Life staff as well as other members of Michigan Tech’s faculty and staff. According to Johnson, the Reading as Inquiry program is one of the most inclusive programs on campus. About 170 faculty and staff members will lead discussions with about 1200 students.

Chris Anderson, a member of the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, and a current masters student in Applied Science Education at Michigan Tech, will be a discussion leader this year. He appeared to be looking forward to leading a discussion group and gave the impression that he enjoyed reading the novel. Anderson commented that he has re-read it a number of times.

"Choosing this book as a summer reading can help make connections between the community and the university," Anderson said. "We all need heroes and positive role models. This novel has the potential to be planting the seeds for education."

Along with reading the novel and participating in group discussions, students and community members have multiple opportunities to be involved. Copies of the book have been given to the Portage Lake District Library and the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College Library. Finlandia students will also have opportunities to read and discuss the book in some of their classes. On September 14 the author Sherman Alexie is scheduled to visit Michigan Tech campus and will be giving a speech in the Rozsa Theater beginning at 7 p.m. This year a special event will conclude the program: A Powwow will be held at 1 p.m. on Oct. 23 in the SDC (Student Development Complex) Multipurpose room.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian brings to the Keweenaw a unique story of an adolescent who, like many of us, is looking to make a major change. The protagonist's personal journey can bring to light some issues that some readers may not expect. Some individuals may be reluctant to discuss these issues. Regardless, this book holds the potential to make a bridge between the community and the Michigan Tech campus while enriching the education of students.

*Editor's Note: Guest reporter Samantha Stauch wrote this article for David Clanaugh's summer journalism class at Michigan Tech. This is her third article for Keweenaw Now. See also her articles "Portage Library Summer Reading Program: More than just a good read" and "Playtime in the Park means summer fun for kids, parents."

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