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No reading during war

DAVID HARDEN/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Senior majoring in English Helena Ribiero was supposed to read aloud during the 24-hour reading marathon held by the English department, but due to the recent terror alert this year's event was cancelled.
By Orli Ben-Dor
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday April 8, 2003

War gets in the way of the English department's planned read-a-thon

Undergraduate English students looked forward to hearing the lyrics of literature linger in the air, first under the sun, then under the stars at the annual marathon reading scheduled from noon to noon starting Thursday, April 10. But now, the 10th and 11th will be business as usual. Because of the war and its corresponding safety issues, the overnight outdoor event, anticipated by some since the moment last year's read-a-thon ended, will no longer take place.

open quote marks
It turns out that because of terrorist activities that they were cancelling all overnight events."

- Charlie Bertsch
associate professor of English and co-organizer of the event

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"The dean of student life contacted the English department administrative person and said that it had been cancelled. We weren't sure what that meant so she called and asked them what (was) going on. It turns out that because of the threat of terrorist activities that they were cancelling all overnight events," Charlie Bertsch, associate professor of English and co-organizer of the event, said.

Bertsch also said that the department requested some sort of leeway, as the event is clearly non-war-related, but the ban on overnight outdoor events still stood.

The associate dean of students, Veda Kowalski, didn't have quite the same explanation of the cancellation, however.

Due to the nation being on high alert, all outdoor campus events must end by 10:30 p.m., Kowalski reported. According to Kowalski, she attempted to work with the department to move the event to a different venue, like Bear Down Gym, but the event managers declined.

DAVID HARDEN/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Helena Ribiero is one of many disappointed students who won't get to participate in the annual read-a-thon this year, due to the high terror alert.
Helena Ribiero, senior majoring in English and member of the planning committee, explains that the purpose of the marathon is not to merely get through reading Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man" in a

24-hour period, but includes other goals, like community building, to break certain stereotypes regarding academic events. While one might be able to set up a podium with a microphone and folding chairs for however many people at Bear Down Gym, it would not be the type of read-a-thon that the organizers had in mind.

"It's not in an enclosed space. People can walk by and say I'm going to hang out here for 15 minutes and see what's going on and maybe even sign up to read,'" Ribeiro said.

Ribeiro and other students on the planning committee, like junior majoring in English Megan Massino, stressed that the department wanted to gear the event not only toward students majoring in English or others involved in the department, but to anyone interested, particularly undergraduate students.

"It's really a school-wide event. There weren't people in suits. It wasn't inside," Massino explained.

Professor Bertsch seemed to understand the reasoning behind the cancellation, but nevertheless, like the others involved and many planning on attending, hoped that the current state of war the world faces wouldn't prevent such peaceful, non-war-related events from occurring.

"My sense of the whole thing is that there were a number of possible overnight activities that the administration was concerned about from a security standpoint and cancelled all overnight events just for the sake of safety and consistency," Bertsch said.

"I think it's really unfortunate that an event that's supposed to bring people together and make them realize certain problems in American society can't take place because we are in the midst of a war situation. That is the unfortunate irony; that is what we have to live with," he said.

The significance of the read-a-thon lies beyond the idea of merely staging a cool, unconventional academic event. The marathon aims at broadening the traditional audience of the department's programs by appealing to often overlooked younger students.

"This is basically the only undergrad event that we have. The read-a-thon was specifically an undergrad event and I feel like that was something that belonged to us in a different way than most other events did," Massino said

Massino explained that the department offers events throughout the semester, bringing in speakers and organizing lectures, but those are usually structured for graduate students, though they are open to undergraduate students as well. The marathon reading targeted undergraduates in particular and broke away from the stuffy academic stereotype, and the planning committee worked hard to make the marathon reading happen and make it a memorable, enjoyable experience for the attendees.

"We had political people signed up to read, we had important department heads signed up to read, but we also had tons of undergrad support from people both inside and outside the major," Massino said. Besides filling time slots to read, the committee lined up donations to cover anything from student-designed T-shirts to Starbucks coffee, pizza and bagels.

And while the organizers of the event plan on trying it again next year, the cancellation devastated graduating seniors like Ribeiro.

"Since noon of last year when it ended, we've been looking forward to it. The awesome thing about it is that you can talk to people in your class you don't necessarily hang out with in an absolutely social environment at school. I was looking forward to it maybe even more than graduation because it was going to be one time to be relaxed, to be with your friends, to be with your professors, to get to know everybody to be able to say goodbye in a way you can't in McKale Center," she reflected.

Thursday and Friday will come and go with no tents set up on the grass in front of the Arizona State Museum. The words of "The Invisible Man" will be inaudible to the passersby. The words of literature won't sail through the air under the stars. Kids won't meet and mingle or pull all-nighters with new and old friends. This spring, academia will remain inside and in suits. The marathon reading has failed not because of poor planning or lack of funds, but because of something out of the control of those involved, because of something that seems to be affecting more and more people every day: the war in Iraq.

"We are going to hold the marathon reading next year. We're going to do The Invisible Man' again," Bertsch said. "Hopefully, you know, if everything goes right the war will be over and things will look a little better."

Maybe it will give the graduating seniors reason to come and visit, anyway.

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