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November 9, 2006

Common book activities abound as UW prepares for Farmer visit

News and Information

It’s mid-afternoon in the School of Drama’s studio theater in Hutchinson Hall, and physician Paul Farmer and his colleagues — here looking impossibly young — are having an argument about treatment protocol, while author Tracy Kidder looks on, listening intently.

But of course it’s not really Paul Farmer, global health advocate, co-founder of Partners in Health and the subject of Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, the UW Common Book for 2006. And it’s not really Kidder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. They are played by various students in a succession of scenes as the afternoon moves on.

These undergraduates are just a few of the thousands of students from Arts & Sciences to Health Sciences who are studying Farmer and his work this year, from myriad perspectives, as the UW’s first-ever Common Book project unfolds across campus. Farmer himself will be on campus for a sold-out speech on Nov. 13 that will also be webcast and piped to several “overflow” rooms throughout Kane Hall.

The student actors are in Drama 490, “Creating Drama,” which is being taught by Andrew Tsao, a professional actor, director and teacher. Usually, the class takes scenes for study from personal biographies or news items. But this quarter, Tsao said, they are working up scenes culled from Mountains Beyond Mountains.

“It’s been daunting,” especially at first, Tsao said, “because the students are used to being given a dramatic text with specific characters, character arcs and act structures.” The challenge for the students, he said, is to take this literary narrative and breathe life into it as something that exists “in three dimensions, in space and in time.”

But as the students read through the scenes, some already spark with lively interaction as a real play might. In one scene Farmer and his colleagues let down their hair and sing karaoke with their Russian hosts; the next finds them discussing the all-out and unsuccessful effort they made to save one young patient.

An unusual way of having undergraduates encounter issues of health, poverty, access and health disparities? Not really — the common book project is designed to touch students in a number of ways, from academic to personal, and it seems to do just that.

It comes as no surprise to Ed Taylor, dean of undergraduate academic affairs and vice provost, who with Christine Ingebritson and others was part of the committee that designed the Common Book Project.

“I’ve heard story after story of students very much moved by this book,” Taylor said. “I’ve heard students talk about making their own commitment to service, inspired to think about what they can do.” The reach of the book, he said, has been from the incoming freshmen who are assigned the book to students in the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) medical education program.

Indeed, classes, seminars and Freshman Interest Groups across campus are using the book to further discussions of the politics of health and poverty.

Matt Sparke, a professor of geography, said he is using the book in his 500-student Geography 123 class, titled “Introduction to Globalization,” to provide two key lessons. First, he said, is Farmer’s big picture about inequality amid interdependency: “I find the book a useful corrective to what is normally the common sense students have gotten from the media about globalization creating a level playing field. That’s lesson number one.”

The second lesson is more particular, Sparke said, to global health — specificially, global health disparities — and the way in which trade agreements and corporate actions can have devastating effects on the poor by limiting or completely curtailing access to life-saving medicines.

Sparke said he compared Farmer’s basically ground-up, clinic-based account of globalization with what he termed the “executive club thinking” of Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, who has theorized that the flood of technology and free markets have made economic opportunity more available throughout the world.

“A number of students in persuaded by Friedman,” Sparke said. “And I tell them, hold that flat world view in tension with Mountains Beyond Mountains and use that tension to continue asking critical questions about globalization.”

Janelle Taylor, assistant professor of anthropology, who team-teaches Humanities 201, “Diagnosing Injustice: Ethics, Power, and Global Health” with Sara Goering, assistant professor of philosophy, for the Simpson Center, has had similar discussions in their class. Taylor said their students have studied the idea of “structural violence,” or, she explained, how policies of those with power can have material impacts on those without power. “Economic policies can get into people’s bodies in the form of hunger, illness, injury and early death,” she said.

They, too, compared this idea with Farmer’s approach. Taylor said, “When you put health and the health of the poorest people at the center of your agenda, you get a very different picture of what’s necessary than when you put, for example, the market at the center of the agenda or security at the center of the agenda.”

Of her students, who she noted had chosen to attend the class and meet the challenge of understanding such things, she said, “It’s hard for people to assmimilate any of these things, but on the other hand I am getting from students this feeling that they really want to know, and want to be aware, and want to find ways to take action.”

Across campus, the UW’s 161 Freshman Interst Groups (FIGs) also are preparing for Farmer’s visit. For weeks, student members have been writing scores of questions for Farmer from which a few final questions were chosen by a committee of student participants.

Becky Francoeur, program manager for First Year Programs who has been overseeing the gathering of the questions, said one of the main themes stions was how students can help such causes as Farmer’s Partners in Health even if they are not headed for medical educations. Francoeur said student questions also touched on how to manage the competing demands of personal and professional lives and how to treat each individual patient effectively while also keeping in mind the larger goals of global health and equity.

Back in drama, Andrew Tsao reminds his students, “The main question of the book is, how do you do sustainable work? We can’t all be saints.” In finals week, they will perform the scenes they have created from Mountains Beyond Mountains, and the public will be welcome.

Across campus, Matt Sparke and other professors are encouraging their students to keep inquiring, keep exploring the issues of poverty and equity. “A lot of these folks are freshmen,” he says. “They are the ones for whom I am saying most keenly, ‘Keep asking these questions.’”

He adds, “This book really does have great pedagogic value.”


  • Paul Farmer will speak at 7 p.m. Monday. Nov. 13, in 130 Kane. The event is sold out and overflow rooms in Kane are largely full. But Farmer’s talk will be webcast by UWTV. Watch it online at: www.uwcommonbook.org