Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tag: book discussions

“Race and Storytelling” Book Discussion

This Wednesday, November 10, a focused book discussion, “Race and Storytelling,” will be introduced and led by Professors Sandra Adell, Afro-American Studies, and Ethelene Whitmire, Library and Information Studies.

Professor Adell’s areas of specialization include Black literature and modern narrative; she has also recently published a memoir, Confessions of a Slot Machine Queen. Professor Whitmire’s current project examines the life of Regina Andrews (1901-1993),the first African-American supervising librarian in the New York Public Library system.

All are welcome at the discussion, which will be held from 5:30-7 pm in the SLIS Commons, Room 4207, Helen C. White Hall.

Sarah McDaniel
Go Big Read

History 900 Responds to the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

We are a seminar of graduate students in US history, mostly in our first semester. Because we are preparing to be professional historians, we may have read this book differently than other audiences. In our discussion, we focused less on the aspect of professional ethics in science and more time exploring how Skloot told her story, placing the story of the Lacks family within the broader context of the history of science. We almost never agreed in our response to any particular question, so here we present a range of our responses rather than our singular ‘take’ on the book. We hope that others will find the issues we raise to be of interest.While Skloot focuses her attention on the issue of professional ethics in science, we spent a lot of time discussing her own professional ethics as an author and, more specifically whether she should be held to the standards of a journalist, a historian, or an altogether separate standard.This question is complicated by the fact that her day to day profession is somewhat of a hybrid.She has worked as a journalist for a wide variety of magazines. Her book describes her as a “science writer” who has taught “non-fiction in the creative writing departments” at several universities and as a blogger. There was a discussion of how Skloot’s background as a science writer left her somewhat unprepared for the challenges of writing about issues pertaining to race and class. “How well,” several of us asked, “did she handle her responsibility to the Lacks family both during the research process and in the writing of the book?”

Our responses were decidedly mixed. One person pointed out that Skloot made the Lacks family central figures in the book. Working class blacks are usually ignored in texts; they don’t have a voice. Skloot, by keeping their experiences central, gives them a voice. She also gives examples throughout the work of how African Americans and the Lacks in particular have been mistreated. Another participant agreed: Skloot used small stories to create a context to guide readers’ understandings of working-class African Americans’ place in the story. Others built on this point, noting that the book reveals the education and information gap between different people in the United States, a gap largely determined by economic class. People speak almost separate languages, all the while living around the corner from one another in a city like Baltimore. It is a commendable act to bring this issue to light, and it shows a degree of respect for the Lacks family and their personal experiences.

On the other hand, many people (sometimes the same people) had objections or felt uncomfortable with some of Skloot’s decisions as a researcher and writer. One person pointed out that Skloot called Deborah and others in the Lacks family almost daily for a year—a kind of pressure that could be considered harassment. Another recalled that Skloot’s inquiries caused Deborah real pain and even jeopardized her health. Should she have continued? Others felt uncomfortable with how central Skloot herself was as a character in the story and thought it was a bit self-indulgent. Does Skloot, as both character and narrator, claim the voice of ultimate moral judgment? One person argued that by making herself such a significant character, Skloot implicitly cast herself as different from the rest of the scientists and journalists who had exploited the Lacks for their own gain. Does Skloot thereby reinforce the class and race privileges that allowed her to write this story, rather than someone from the Lacks family or community? Someone suggested that the story of her interactions with the Lacks family could have come in a foreword rather than structure the story. Others countered that scenes showing how hard it was for the family to talk to Skloot were essential to explaining the gulf between the Lacks family and the science community. Such scenes uncovered the material and psychological consequences of the history of scientific exploitation of African Americans, and depicted the family as complex human beings rather than as two-dimensional victims.

The other topic we discussed a great deal was, how does this book compare and contrast with a more academic style of writing common among professional historians? Most obviously, people pointed out the lack of academic-style footnotes. How we felt about the lack of footnotes, however, differed quite dramatically. Some people felt this issue made it difficult to take the book seriously, because points could not be verified or further examined. One person noticed that Skloot promised that fuller documentation would be available on her website, but perused the website and did not find it. Some accepted Skloot’s account of the Lacks family, but felt that footnotes were imperative to reveal how Skoot put together histories of Henrietta’s hometown and African Americans’ relationship to medical science. Another person noted that footnotes are part of what makes scholarship collective; historians not only use footnotes to verify sources but also as a means of taking an investigation further. Others defended the lack of footnotes, saying that the book gives immediacy to voice and speaking, and the humanity of the book is found in this quality. Footnotes would add meaning and context to the text, but would interrupt this immediacy. This immediacy is itself a sort of “truth claim” that resists critique. As scholars in a tradition that emphasizes, indeed glorifies, contextualization, we may be upset by how Skloot’s story defies our interrogations. We had an interesting discussion about how different readers establish the believability of a text. While many distrusted Skloot’s book because of its lack of notes, others found Skloot imminently trustworthy because of how she wrote about herself and the Lacks.

This led to a related conversation about what we can learn from Skloot as a writer of history and how we might endeavor to be “public historians” or “public intellectuals” or to reach a wider audience than a specialized academic one. To achieve public intellectual status, academics may make conscious decisions to write in a more provocative, more quotable, and ultimately more marketable style. We were divided about whether attention to marketability was a good or bad thing. Some felt that Skloot took liberties with source materials and made overgeneralizations to make her story more readable. We also talked about how effective it was that she followed the rule, “show, don’t tell.” We noted that in a specialized academic book, the thesis or point is expected to be very clear. Few historians end their books, as Skloot does, by telling their readers that it is not clear how they should feel about the information provided, but several of us liked the openness of this approach. Though racism is a central theme, Skloot does not discuss it in her introduction or afterward.

Giving contexts for actions and experiences is key to the historian’s craft: context provides narrative and analytical perspective. One of us noted that Skloot builds contexts by telling stories about conversations or events. Some noted that she did so by making up scenes and dialogue in ways that historians generally do not, though we also noted several instances in which historians have done so, precisely to create a more engaging read. By building her narrative around a thoroughly human story, one that is pregnant with real world ethical and political dilemmas, Skloot reminds professional historians of the power of their prose as an agent of moral inquiry. In a similar vein, one of us noted that Skloot, also like professional historians, has a commitment to creating new sources that will provide insight into the past.

Skloot’s use of a personal story to make a larger point can be an essential tool for relating the past to the present. Just as Skloot starts with the story of Henrietta and moves outward, encountering themes of racial injustice, medical ethics etc., so too our training as historians could start with a grounding in historical methodology and move outward, exploring the many styles and aspects of good writing. We look to expand our professional training by examining History in Public and the role that new technologies may play in expanding the reach and benefit of historical analysis. However, we may overlook the significance of classic forms of communication, and we seem to take for granted that we are all good writers.

Submitted by Nan Enstad, Professor of History, UW Madison, for her History 900 Seminar

Diversity Forum to Feature Go Big Read Panel

The 2010 Campus Diversity Forum, “Cultivating Excellence: Nurturing the Seeds of Success” will take place Thursday, September 30, from 8 am-4 pm at the Memorial Union. The event is free and open to the public. Registration for the lunch keynote is now closed, but you can still register for other events.

The Forum will include a Go Big Read Panel Discussion on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks from 1:15-2:30 in the Class of ’24 Reception Room, 4th Floor, Memorial Union. Professor Dayle B. DeLancey, Assistant Professor, Department of Medical History and Bioethics and Professor Susan E. Lederer, Chair, Department of Medical History and Bioethics will lead the session.

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks shows readers how one woman’s experience with medicine has exposed issues of race and culture and highlighted ethical and legal dilemmas. In this joint presentation, two historians of medicine explore these overlapping issues and dilemmas. Professor Sue Lederer reconstructs the racial and cultural background of Henrietta Lacks’ case, while Assistant Professor Dayle B. DeLancey examines the case in ethical and legal context. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the 2009-10 selection for Go Big Read (http://www.gobigread.wisc.edu), UW-Madison’s common reading program.

Participants who have not yet read the book but are interested in joining the conversation are very welcome, as are those who are more familiar with the material.

Hope you can join us!

Sarah McDaniel
Go Big Read & UW Libraries

Go Big Read Book Discussions at the Wisconsin Book Festival

Have you missed the recent book discussions about In Defense of Food? Here are a few more chances to participate! Go Big Read and the are sponsoring two upcoming discussions. The discussion on Thursday, October 8th is conveniently located at College Library, and the Sunday, October 11th discussion at Madison Public Library ends just before Wendell Berry speaks at the Overture Center right next door. An afternoon of food!

More details:

Thursday, October 8th
In Defense of Food Discussion
College Library, Room 1193
7:00 p.m. – 8:15 p.m.

Sunday, October 11th
In Defense of Food Discussion
Madison Public Library (Downtown, 201 W. Mifflin)
2:00 p.m – 3:15 p.m.

For more information about the many Wisconsin Book Festival events beginning next week, see:
http://www.wisconsinbookfestival.org/

And for more information about the many Go Big Read events, see:
http://www.gobigread.wisc.edu/

Thanks,

Eliot Finkelstein
Go Big Read Book Discussions Committee

Food For Thought: Online Book Discussion

Are you unable to attend one of the scheduled book discussions but want to get involved in the conversation?

Want to connect with people from all over the UW campus and the greater Madison community?

Join us in a virtual book discussion on the Food For Thought Posts in the Go Big Read Blog!

Each week, we will be posing a new topic for discussion on the blog, and followers are encouraged to participate by responding in the comment section below each post. Feel free to use and expand on these questions in your own book discussions. Have a great idea for discussion topic? Let us know! Contact the Go Big Read Program at gobigread@library.wisc.edu.

Food For Thought: Topic for Discussion Week of September 21, 2009

Has Pollan changed the way you think about food? If so, how?

Food For Thought: Let’s Start a Book Discussion Online!

Are you unable to attend one of the scheduled book discussions but want to get involved in the conversation?
Want to connect with people from all over the UW campus and the greater Madison community?
Join us in a virtual book discussion on the Food For Thought Posts in the Go Big Read Blog!
Each week, we will be posing a new topic for discussion on the blog, and followers are encouraged to participate by responding in the comment section below each post. Feel free to use and expand on these questions in your own book discussions. Have a great idea for discussion topic? Let us know! Contact the Go Big Read Program at gobigread@library.wisc.edu.

Food For Thought: Topic for Discussion Week of September 7, 2009

Who is Michael Pollan and why should we listen to him regarding food and nutrition?