Shared Reading Program Sets Tone for Year Ahead
This week, the University of Denver’s Class of 2022 began the first chapter of its college experience. Through move-in, Pioneer Passage and Discoveries Week, each of the 1,500 first-year students is starting to fill the pages with a personal tale of exploration and inquiry.
Before the students — hailing from 48 states and 24 countries — set foot on campus, they cast their eyes on Molly Birnbaum’s memoir, “Season to Taste” — the selection for this year’s One Book, One DU program. The three-year-old common-reading program grows out of DU IMPACT 2025 and student requests for a shared intellectual experience outside the classroom.
Over the course of 300 pages, students accompany Birnbaum from college — where the art history major dreams of culinary success — to career. They follow her into the kitchen of an upscale Boston-area restaurant and later into the hospital, where a collision with a car has left her without her senses of smell and taste.
As Birnbaum searches for a scientific explanation and a remedy, she finds a new world of challenge, frustration and delight. She discovers a new way of relating to the world while confronting her vulnerabilities.
After reading Birnbaum’s account, the incoming students were asked to respond to a prompt and tell their own story of something they’ve lost or fear losing. Responses to “One Prompt” can come in any form — a traditional essay, video, work of art, or anything else a student can imagine.
“Shared stories can help us share who we are,” says L.P. Picard, a teaching associate professor in the University Writing Program who also helps coordinate One Book. “But the act of listening to someone else’s story can also help us begin to appreciate where each other is coming from. And I think in order for us to have important conversations on campus, in order for us to fulfill some of the missions of DU IMPACT 2025, it’s crucial that we understand where we’re all coming from, what these different backgrounds are bringing to the table and how they come together to create a tapestry on campus.”
“Season to Taste” is meant to break the conversational ice for the new academic year. Additional programming calls for numerous opportunities to spotlight the book and student responses. Each of this year’s All Campus Lectures explored a theme floated in the book, and Birnbaum is expected to visit campus later this month. Other projects, like the Many Voices, One DU publication, will showcase the experiences of this diverse class.
Jennifer Karas, vice provost for academic programs, says the initiative satiates the community’s hunger for connection while also sending a message to the newest class of Pioneers.
“Let’s come together and do what we do here, which is talk and reflect and learn from each other,” she says. “[Students] get this in the mail with a DU logo on it and a letter from the chancellor right away, saying, ‘Welcome. This is what we do. We think, we reflect, we engage, we’re community members.’”
In selecting this year’s One Book, Picard and her colleagues received 82 nominations, which a committee whittled down to 10. As students, faculty and the chancellor weighed in, the group searched for a work that is accessible, linguistically appropriate, cross-disciplinary and identity-focused. In years past, the committee has selected “The Truth About Stories” by Thomas King and “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance.
As a writer, Picard likes this year’s selection for its vivid, rich descriptions of often-overlooked senses. As a part of the DU community, she admires the way it cuts across academic boundaries and speaks to the student experience.
“The University is really trying to heighten conversations around mental wellness and mental health,” she said. “I think a big problem that some of our students may face is having an invisible disability. So what does it mean when you carry around an invisible injury or something that other people can’t see and they don’t see that you’re struggling?”
Experiences like Birnbaum’s, Chancellor Rebecca Chopp wrote in her introduction to the specially printed DU edition of the book, are formative. They are experiences that should be shared.
“We will learn from each other,” she wrote. “That’s the adventure of education, and I’m so happy you will be taking this journey at DU.”