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Author, Colson Whitehead, signs copies of his books following a guest-speaking event at UAFS

Author, Colson Whitehead, signs copies of his books following a guest-speaking event at UAFS

FeaturedApril 12, 2024

Crack Open a Book with 'Read This!'

The love of reading is taught to many of us at an early age. Getting lost in a world of fiction or reading about real-life events inspires, transforms, and educates with every passing word.

At the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, the love of books extends beyond the classroom and the university. The “Read This!” program was established in 2009 under the direction of Dr. Keith Fudge and the UAFS English Department. The program is a multidisciplinary literacy program to educate participants on important social issues.

Program coordinator Dr. Ann-Gee Lee, a professor of English, rhetoric, and writing, says “Read This!” is “not just a program for people who love to read, but for people who love to learn.”

“We try to do more than just read (the book); the author comes, and you try to hype them up,” Lee explained.

So, what else does “Read This!” provide?

Beginning with students taking Composition II courses, the campus big read consists of a book launch, a read-aloud, and other activities.

However, Lee said, “Just reading the book and talking about it in class only gets you so far.”

“When we collaborate with other classes, departments, or offices across campus and beyond, we expand the learning outside of our classrooms and expand the perspectives with which to examine the book, which makes for a more interesting and deeper-level reading,” she explained.

The community is invited to participate in a lecture series, discussions, and a speaking engagement with the author or other prominent guests to broaden what is gleaned from each book. The interactions between campus and community help further understand diverse populations and to become more informed and enlightened citizens.

“’Read This!’ helps us cross boundaries that are usually parallel from one another and rarely meet,” Lee said. “It just improves and enhances the entire reading experience so much more.”

Since the program’s inception, ten novels have been read and discussed. The first six years brought a new book to the program, but it has since evolved to dig deeper into each story, with a new one being examined every two years.

Beginning with “True Grit” by Charles Portis, the “Read This!” program has covered: “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness” by Simon Wiesenthal; “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” by Mark Haddon; “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien; “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan; “House Made of Dawn” by N. Scott Momaday; “Into the Beautiful North” by Luis Alberto Urrea; “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel; “Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann; and most recently “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead.

Programming centered around “The Nickel Boys” concludes in 2024 and was made possible from funding provided by the Winthrop Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture program and a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council and National Endowment for the Humanities.

Through the grant, Whitehead came to UAFS to discuss his novel with students, faculty, staff, and residents of the River Valley. During the presentation, Karen Haggard, a committee member and student success librarian, was immersed in a conversation with a high school student who had previously read “The Nickel Boys.”

“His enthusiasm about the book and the chance to hear the author was contagious. I’m so glad ‘Read This!’ creates those opportunities for students,” Haggard said proudly.

As the programming for “The Nickel Boys” continues, Lee organized expert lecturers to discuss what Arkansas reform schools looked like and the disproportionate minority contact in the area. Later, there will be a presentation by Dr. Erin Kimberly, who will go over the forensics related to “The Nickel Boys” – the process of finding, digging, and identifying the victims.

Looking back at the programming from past “Read This!” books and extended learning, Lee is pleased with the results. From using your imagination to create live extensions to interactive exhibits for the books, Lee calls experiential learning “one of the best and most meaningful ways to learn.”

“It just makes everything more fun and interactive and blurs cross-cultural lines,” Lee said.

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Rachel Rodemann Putman

  • Director of Strategic Communications
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