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USF group adds books to leisure

True joy in one's work comes in moving beyond the requirements. Dozens of professors and students at the University of South Florida have been enjoying that kind of freedom lately, gathering several times a semester to discuss a book that each one is reading.

Nobody is making them do it.

The idea of a campus-wide reading group is actually very old at USF. Thirty years ago, when USF thought of itself as an experimental liberal arts college, an "All-University Book" was declared each term by a faculty-student committee. The book, chosen either for entertainment or some aspect of social relevance, was to be discussed "in classes, carpools, dormitories and lunchrooms," as Russell Cooper and Margaret Fisher, two early USF professors, wrote in a history of USF.

At least one campus-wide meeting was held for each book. "The popular practice was abandoned after three years for lack of time and space on campus to accommodate the large numbers who wanted to attend the special forums," Cooper and Fisher wrote.

That Athenian image of eager scholars and learners sounds a little incredible in present-day USF, known for its commuter-school mentality and a nearly constant struggle to get people to participate in extra-curricular activities.

But last fall, Dean Rollin Richmond in the College of Arts and Sciences, along with Aaron Smith, an associate professor of social work, resurrected the book-reading idea. Plenty of students and professors showed up (though to be fair, one professor did make the book part of her classroom assignments).

"I did it partly for my own interest," Richmond said. "I like to talk to people about what I'm reading."

But Richmond said he was also looking for something to foster a sense of community that would transcend student-faculty, disciplinary and social boundaries. The book he and Smith chose, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, by former Harvard law professor Derrick Bell, was about American racism, and it sparked some lively debates.

As a dean, Richmond has been well aware of the racial misunderstandings and animosities that can plague college campuses. "My own sense is that when you leave these things hidden, people's fears and hopes have a way of not being worked out," he said.

This semester, the group decided to stick with a racial theme, choosing Race Matters, a book of short essays by Princeton philosopher Cornel West. The second of three discussions is scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday on the fourth floor of the main campus library. Participants should read through Chapter 5.

The last discussion, in February, attracted mostly professors. But they were a mixed group consisting of anthropologists, historians, political scientists, even a mathematician. When one participant asked if anyone had seen a recent edition of Oprah, several people laughed. She reddened and added, "Someone taped it for me."

But, all in all, as the group explored the connections between politics, economics, social identities and values, one gained a sense not only of intelligent people cross-pollinating. One came also to appreciate their search for a just world and a moral discourse. And one realized how important the work of a university can be.