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English Department's 'Big Read' project set to tackle 'The Odyssey'


Spring 2019 | By David Ching. Photo by John Underwood, Purdue Marketing and Media.


Story's Main Image

In the first two years of “The Big Read” community reading project, the Purdue English Department invited the renowned author of that year’s selected text to campus, allowing a local audience to hear them discuss their work.

That will not be possible in year three since the author has been dead for thousands of years, but Purdue will get the next best thing. The centerpiece of the upcoming school year’s “Big Read” festivities will be a new translation of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, and its translator, Emily Wilson, will visit campus in December.

“She’s the first woman to have translated The Odyssey in English, and it’s gotten really, really good reviews from people in terms of the poetics of the language,” associate head of English Barbara Dixon said of the translation, which the New York Times named as one of its 100 notable books of 2018. “It’s such an important text in terms of literature and story and myth, I think there are many people who will be interested in coming and hearing her speak.”

In the months before Wilson visits Purdue, and well after, there will be an abundance of Odyssey-related activities both on campus and around the Greater Lafayette area. There will be special lectures, arts and crafts opportunities, old movie nights, and perhaps a creative writing workshop. Purdue Convocations will even bring a dramatic performance of The Odyssey to campus as part of its 2019-20 schedule.

The main event involves high school and college students – including participants in the Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program – retirees, library members, and other local residents who will collectively read and analyze one of the central Western texts.

The Odyssey has a lot of cultural resonance just because the story of Odysseus wandering around and trying to get home and all the calamities that he falls into or discovers, it’s a great way of telling the human story, said Nick Schenkel, director of the West Lafayette Public Library. “It’s part of our cultural makeup in the West. We know that story.”

The Odyssey book coverAdding new partners
The West Lafayette Library has been an enthusiastic partner since "The Big Read's" inception, as have the Dawn or Doom Conference and McCutcheon High School. The reading initiative has also linked up with the Wabash Area Lifetime Learning Association – directed toward adults over 50 – and the Tippecanoe County Public Library, which will also showcase The Odyssey with its pre-existing “One Great Read” program this year.

“I’d love for it to be a whole-community thing every year,” said associate professor Derek Pacheco, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in English who facilitates the program. “I’d love every year for it to be a collaboration between the “One Great Read” and the English Department so that high school kids, retirees, community residents, and college students have a shared bond and a common cultural event.”

As in the first two years of the program, when it distributed 2,000 free copies of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (pictured above while speaking at Purdue's 2018 Literary Awards) and Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad, the program will distribute free copies of Wilson’s translation across the Greater Lafayette area, to prospective students, and to any faculty in the Cornerstone program who want to teach from Homer’s epic in their class.

Powerful applications
It will also be taught in the “Engaging English” learning community, as was the case in this school year when Dixon taught The Underground Railroad to students in the fall. The learning community students didn’t just read the book in class, they also engaged in out-of-class activities related to the book. For example, they visited the Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site in Fountain City, where the Coffins helped 1,000 freedom seekers escape slavery.

“The students said the experience of actually going there and learning that the underground railroad was active in, for many of them, their home state, and the kinds of things that happened connecting the things in the book to an actual space was very powerful,” Dixon said.

The students in the learning community also appreciated the communal aspect of collectively reading the same text.

“As an English major, I always wanted to have a group of people to come together,” said Havalind Veley, a freshman in professional writing. “It’s kind of like a giant book club to me, and I always wanted that experience. I thought it was really cool.”

That would undoubtedly be music to Pacheco’s ears since one of his goals for the program is that “The Big Read” will attract students to English and compel them to remain lifelong readers. Showcasing such a familiar text in the upcoming school year might be even more powerful in that capacity.

“In my high school we didn’t read a lot of older books, so I’m excited about it,” said Julia Taylor a freshman in professional writing and Spanish and another member of the English learning community. “I know some people might be like, ‘Oh, I’ve already read this, but I haven’t so I think it will be an interesting thing to read.”

Meeting its purpose
If all that happened in “The Big Read” was that its participants were collectively exposed to a great piece of literature, it would have served a valuable purpose. But that is not all that a community common-read program aspires to accomplish – especially this program.

Through the variety of community events, performances, lectures and – of course – reading, they aim to enrich the community in a way that suits Purdue’s institutional mission.

“We envision it becoming a recruitment and retention engine for us," Pacheco said. "We give copies to students who come to visit. What’s special about going to the English Department at Purdue when you have other universities in the state? We’re trying to make the case that we have unique programs, and one of the things we want to say is we’re the public land-grant university in the state of Indiana. This is part of that commitment.”

At least one of Pacheco’s community partners seems to share the same objective.

“It’s easy to be at Purdue and be wrapped up with Purdue, and it’s easy to be outside of Purdue and be wrapped up with what’s outside of Purdue,” Schenkel said. “So this attempt to bring the two together, I think, needs to happen more. It’s the whole town-and-gown idea that we both have value added that we can bring to the table. This is a really neat, collaborative effort that’s working.”