February 28, 2011

Course Spotlight

All-university course 'Methland' sparks dialogue

"Methland" author Nick Reding discusses his experiences reasearching his book during his recent visit to Emory.

"The University Course: Methland" — the first of its kind at Emory — examines Nick Reding's acclaimed book about a small Iowa town battered by the methamphetamine epidemic.

While the book, "Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town," is the centerpiece of the course, it is also the backdrop. This semester, 21 professional, graduate and undergraduate students and more than a dozen faculty members from every University unit are sharing their diverse insights, building an intellectual community and tackling an issue of common concern. Offered by the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence (CFDE), the course encourages open dialogue, critical thinking and healthy debate.

"As President Jim Wagner reminds us, we can sometimes forget we are a university, and not a multiversity," says Director Laurie Patton, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Religions and CFDE director. "And to be a university we need to learn together. So we are lighting a match to make that happen."

Patton is co-leading the all-university course with Candler Professor of Law Morgan Cloud and Jeff Rosensweig, associate professor of international business and finance at Goizueta Business School. Donna Troka, adjunct faculty in Emory's Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, is the course director.

All-star lineup

Each week, Methland draws on the wealth of experience of top Emory faculty from disciplines such as medicine, economics, public health, law and literature, who volunteer their time as guest speakers. Similarly, students bring their personal experiences and rich academic perspectives, from the sociology major exploring the social context of a meth addict's behavior to the law student parsing the legal complications of busting a meth lab.

Along with writing traditional academic papers, students work in interdisciplinary groups to develop action plans to combat the meth epidemic.

Reding recently visited campus to deliver a public lecture on "Methland," which chronicles how a former railroad, meat-packing and farming hub became entangled in record meth production, fueled by the power play of agribusiness, pharmaceutical lobbying and flawed U.S. immigration policy.

The author participated in a three-hour session with the class, where he took questions from the students and autographed their books. A native Midwesterner who now teaches creative writing and journalism at Washington University, Reding described the emotional toll of spending thousands of hours reporting from the field over a four-year period. He also discussed the meth problem from the multiple lenses of unemployment, church life, education, law enforcement and trickle-down economics.  

"This book makes a unique contribution by connecting the personal tragedies of people living in the small, rural town of Olewein, Iowa, to the biggest global forces affecting our lives," says Cloud.

A true partnership

The idea for the course bubbled up from initial discussions between Cloud and Rosensweig during CFDE's Distinguished Teaching Scholars Seminar last year.

At the time, Rosensweig was exploring ways to harness the strengths of various University departments and schools to create an intellectual commons. Cloud, whose family roots are only a few miles from Oelwein, proposed "Methland" as a possible topic for an interdisciplinary course. The pair teamed up with Patton, who secured approvals to have the course listed as an independent study in every University department, including at Oxford College.

In the future, the course could make its home in the Institute of Liberal Arts and examine other social problems. Developing a University-wide course was made possible, in part, due to the enthusiastic support from Wagner and Provost Earl Lewis, says Cloud.

In 28 years of teaching, "this class has been one of my most satisfying and uplifting experiences," Cloud adds.

Emory College junior Seth Hansard praised "Methland" for making connections across departments.

"This is the first time I've ever had a conversation with a public health student," says the philosophy major who grew up in Bremen, Ga., which is struggling with meth's growing distribution channel. "This class has strengthened my sense of Emory community."

Reding says he is not aware of any other university devoting a semester-long course to his book. Instead of playing the blame game, he hopes the course will encourage others to talk honestly about drug abuse in rural America as it relates to an evolving global economy.

"The question for me is, 'What are we going to do?'" Reding says. "This is a good start."

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