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Michael Stoff, Director 305 East 23rd St, CLA 2.102, (G3600) Austin, TX 78712-1250 • 512-471-1442

2009 Freshman Voltaire's Coffees

Voltaire’s Coffees for Plan II Freshmen, Class of 2013

Fall 2009

Plan II freshmen are initiated into their first semesters with small, informal, professor-guided book talks called Voltaire's Coffees. The professors we ask to sponsor these discussions select an eclectic and broad combination of texts, from history to philosophy, classics to pop culture, that you will read over the summer to discuss in the fall. At the beginning of the semester you will join the professor and a small group of your classmates in one or more Coffees, providing a wonderful opportunity for both a compelling discussion as well as a chance to meet your Plan II peers and some of the University’s best professors.

You should read the book(s) for at least one Voltaire’s Coffee during the summer; however, you are allowed to read several books and to attend as many of the coffees that interest you, as long as space remains available and the VCs are not held on the same evening.  You can register for your top choices beginning July 19. Please note that two or more VCs may be scheduled on the same evening. Keep that in mind if you choose more than one book to read.

We schedule Voltaire’s Coffees during the first few weeks of classes; several VC’s will meet as soon as dorms open, in the first few days before classes begin. Most dates are posted below; locations will be posted beforeVC registration commences. Your registration confirmation email will contain the book, professor, meeting date and location for your specific VC(s).  Each Coffee typically lasts about 1.5 hours.

For the VC’s that will be held in faculty members’ homes, maps will be available at Plan II office and carpools will be formed. Most will be held in faculty homes.

VC REGISTRATION will begin July 19, 2009. 

To register: Please email the number of Coffees you wish to attend (at least one, and no more than eight) your top three choice Coffees (or more, if you want to attend more), your name, and UT EID starting July 19 to Plan II Students Association Academic Chairs Amanda Jones and Elena Dufner a (that email will not be active and your registration request will not be accepted until the date when VC registration begins...July 19.) Do not delay your registration. Many VCs will fill quickly.

Names and titles of the VC books follow. 
This list will be updated frequently as Coffees are scheduled and meeting places are confirmed.

1. Any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, led by Dr. Michael Starbird, Professor of Mathematics: Monday, August 31st, 7 PM.  This VC will be held at Professor Starbird's home.  Address information will be distributed to those registered in the VC.

About the book:

Sherlock Holmes is the most famous detective in fiction. The 56 short stories and four novels present us with a wealth of delight as we follow Holmes' amazing deductions. Some moments in the stories are truly classics such as the exchange in 'Silver Blaze':

Inspector Gregory: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Please read as many of the stories as you wish.

About the professor:

Michael Starbird is Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Austin. He received his B.A. degree from Pomona College in 1970 and his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1974. That same year, he joined the faculty of the Department of Mathematics of The University of Texas at Austin, where he has stayed except for leaves as a Visiting Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey; a Visiting Associate Professor at the University of California, San Diego; and a member of the technical staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.  He also teaches a Plan II mathematics course and regularly serves on the faculty panel for the Plan II Perspectives class in the Spring.  Within the Plan II community he is most beloved for his sense of humor, his colorful sweaters, and his infamous Jabberwocky poem. 

2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Waoby Junot Diaz, led by Dr. Alexandra Wettlaufer, Associate Director of Plan II Honors Program and Associate Professor of French & Italin: Wednesday, September 2nd, 7 PM. This VC will be held at Professor Wettlaufer's home.  Address information will be distributed to those registered in the VC.

About the book:

Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fuk-the curse that has haunted the Oscar's family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Daz immerses us in the tumultuous life of Oscar and the history of the family at large, rendering with genuine warmth and dazzling energy, humor, and insight the Dominican-American experience, and, ultimately, the endless human capacity to persevere in the face of heartbreak and loss.

About the professor:

Alexandra Wettlaufer is an Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature and Associate Director of the Plan II Honors Program. She specializes in the relationship between painting and literature in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. She received her BA from Princeton and a PhD from Columbia University. Her publications include Pen vs Paintbrush: Girodet, Balzac and the Myth of Pygmalion (St Martins Press, 2001), In the Minds Eye: The Visual Impulse in Prose (Rodopi, 2003) and articles on Baudelaire, Ruskin, Turner, George Sand, and Flora Tristan. She was awarded the Presidents Fellows Teaching Award in 2000 and the Blunk Professorship in Teaching and Advising in 2007.

3. The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow, led by Dr. David Laude, Professor of Natural Science: Monday, August 24th, 7 PM.  This VC will be held at Professor Laude's home.  Address information will be distributed to those registered in the VC.

About the book:

This is a relatively breezy introduction to the arbitrariness of the world in which we live, from interesting historical consequences to an array of modern applications across the academic disciplines and into the modern world in which we live.  You have to think to follow the book, but it is equation free, and very well written.  On a certain level it is perhaps a good book to read for the control-freak in all of us that needs to be reminded that it is better to just let go.

About the professor:

Dr. Laude is a Professor of Chemistry and the Student Dean in Natural Sciences.  He is actually nicer than you might think, for a chemist and an administrator, and spends his spare time raising a bunch of kids, coaching youth sports teams, and surfing sports and film message boards.

4. Shakespeare’s King Lear, led by Dr. Alan Friedman, Professor of English: Monday, August 24th, 7 PM. This VC will be held on campus in the Joynes Suite, Carothers 007.

About the book:

King Lear is considered one of Shakespeare's greatest works. The play is based on the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman king, who divides his realm between his daughters and offers the largest share to the one who loves him best. Greed, trickery and romance are just a few of the many plot elements that Shakespeare employs to make probing observations on the nature of human suffering and kinship.  

About the professor:

A professor of English and one of Plan II's professors for the first-year World Literature class, Dr. Friedman's areas of interest include British and American modernism, the novel, drama (especially Shakespeare), international programs, faculty governance, and academic freedom.  He has authored and edited numerous books and articles, and he has won many distinguished teaching awards both from Plan II and the University of Texas as a whole, including the Outstanding UT Professor Award (2003), the Chad Oliver Teaching Award for Plan II (2003), the Thomas Mabry Cranfill Teaching Fellowship in support of Actors from the London Stage (2004), and the titles of Humanities Institute Faculty Fellow (2003) and Parlin Fellow.

5. "They Say": Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race by James West Davidson, led by Dr. Michael Stoff, Director of Plan II Honors and Professor of History: Thursday, August 27th, 7 PM. This VC will be held at Professor Stoff's home.  Address information will be distributed to those registered in the VC.

About the book:

Between 1880 and 1930, Southern mobs hanged, burned, and otherwise tortured to death at least 3,300 African Americans. And yet the rest of the nation largely ignored the horror of lynching or took it for granted, until a young schoolteacher from Tennessee raised her voice. Her name was Ida B. Wells.

In "They Say," historian James West Davidson recounts the first thirty years of this passionate woman's life--as well as the story of the great struggle over the meaning of race in post-emancipation America. Davidson captures the breathtaking, often chaotic changes that swept the South as Wells grew up in Holly Springs, Mississippi: the spread of education among the free blacks, the rise of political activism, the bitter struggles for equality in the face of entrenched social custom. As Wells came of age she moved to bustling Memphis, eager to worship at the city's many churches (black and white), to take elocution lessons and perform Shakespeare at evening soirees, to court and spark with the young men taken by her beauty. But Wells' quest for fulfillment was thwarted as whites increasingly used race as a barrier separating African Americans from mainstream America. Davidson traces the crosscurrents of these cultural conflicts through Ida Wells' forceful personality. When a conductor threw her off a train for not retreating to the segregated car, she sued the railroad--and won. When she protested conditions in the segregated Memphis schools, she was fired--and took up full-time journalism. And in 1892, when an explosive lynching rocked Memphis, she embarked full-blown on the career for which she is now remembered, as an outspoken writer and lecturer against lynching.

Richly researched and deftly written, "They Say" offers a gripping portrait of the young Ida B. Wells, shedding light not only on how one black American defined her own aspirations and her people's freedom, but also on the changing meaning of race in America.
About the professor:

On May 17, 2008, at the Plan II Honors Commencement Convocation, President Bill Powers announced the appointment of Professor Stoff as the director of Plan II Honors through 2012. Michael Stoff served as the director ad interim from September 2006 until May 2008. Dr. Stoff is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor and Associate Professor in the Department of History. He received his doctorate from Yale University and serves as co-editor of the Oxford New Narratives in American History. Since 1998, Dr. Stoff has been involved with the Normandy Scholars program in which students study the Second World War in class and in Europe.
6. Machiavelli’s The Prince, led by Dr. John Daly from the School of Communications. Sunday, August 30th, 7 PM.    This VC will be held on campus in the Joynes Suite, Carothers 007.
About the book:
The Prince is a political treatise by the Florentine public servant and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli. It examines the acquisition, perpetuation, and use of political power in the western world. Not intending his writing to be a scholarly treatise on political theory, Machiavelli wrote The Prince to prove his proficiency in the art of the state, offering advice on how a prince might gain and keep power.
About the professor:
Dr. John Daly (Ph.D., Purdue University, 1977) is the Liddell Centennial Professor of Communication, University Distinguished Teaching Professor, TCB Professor of Management, and an Adjunct Professor of Pharmacy. He has published more than one hundred articles and chapters in scholarly publications, and completed six books. Dr. Daly's interests focus on practical ways of improving the communication skills of individuals. Thus, he has examined topics such as shyness, personality difference in communication, communication difficulties people experience in their personal and professional relationships, and ways people advocate for their ideas. In recent years, he has worked with the White House on issues related to customer service and communication. Dr. Daly has been the winner of every campus-wide undergraduate teaching award. He was named a Fellow of the International Communication Association in recognition of his scholarly work. He has taught classes in interpersonal communication, persuasion and attitude change, and empirical research methods.
7. The Bird Artist by Howard Norman, led by Matt Valentine, Program Coordinator and Instructor for Plan II Honors: Friday, August 28th, 7 PM. This VC will be held on campus in the Joynes Suite, Carothers 007.
About the book:
"My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You will not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself." This book, Howard Norman's second novel, was a finalist for the National Book Award. In unadorned prose, Norman renders the landscape and citizenry of a tiny fishing community, and the extraordinary dramas of life there.
About the professor:
Matt lives in Austin, where he teaches courses in photography and in creative writing for the Plan II Honors Program at the University of Texas. He received an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from New York University, where he was also a full-time staff member of the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School for the Arts. His fiction has recently appeared in The Greensboro Review and The Madison Review. His interviews with notable writers appeared in Washington Square, where he was fiction editor in 2001 and managing editor in 2002. In 2003, he contributed several music reviews and feature stories to the Pittsburgh alternative newsweekly Pulp. Matt’s awards include 3rd Place in Playboy’s college fiction contest, honorable mention in the Greensboro Review’s Literary Awards, and two nominations for the Pushcart Prize.
8. Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, led by Dr. Carol MacKay, Professor of English: Thursday, August 27th, 7 PM. This VC will be held at Professor MacKay's home.  Address information will be distributed to those registered in the VC.
About the book:

Set on a mythical tropical island named Bougainville, Mister Pip tells a gripping tale of the power of storytelling in the midst of the chaos of civil war.  The lone white man on the island, Mr. Watts, becomes the self-appointed teacher of a group school children by reading to them from Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations.  The surprising interconnections between the orphaned Pip in Victorian England and Mr. Watts's listeners create a microcosm of post-colonial literature and a chance for readers to rethink a classic canonical text.  However, it is not necessary to have read Great Expectations to appreciate Jones's award-winning novel, and one pivotal point for our discussion will be to make comparisons between the readings of those who are and are not familiar with Dickens. 
About the professor:
With degrees from Stanford University and UCLA, Carol MacKay specializes in Victorian fiction, auto/biography, and women's and gender studies.  Her most recent book is entitled Creative Negativity: Four Victorian Exemplars of the Female Quest (2001), and she has just published a critical edition of Annie Besant's Autobiographical Sketches (out of print since 1885) for Broadview Press.  She is the recipient of numerous teaching awards and is a member of the Distinguished Teaching Academy.  She regularly teaches in Plan II, alternating between freshmen seminars on the autobiographical impulse in women's writing and junior tutorials on melodrama in nineteenth-century literature.
9. A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolski, led by Moon Draper, PhD, Professor of Natural Sciences: Thursday, August 27th, 7 PM. This VC will be held on campus in the Joynes Suite, Carothers 007.
About the book:
A Primate’s Memoir documents Sapolsky's years in Kenya studying baboons as a graduate student. The chapters alternate between describing observations of a troop of baboons and the wildly different culture in Africa that he is increasingly cognizant of. The book portrays an unconventional way of studying neurophysiology to determine the effects of stress on life expectancy.
The book was nominated for the The Aventis Prizes for Science Books in 2002.
About the professor:
I teach Plan II Biology, and a new TC357 course in the Spring of 2010 that will look at the efforts to conserve wildlands in Costa Rica.  It will involve both science and public policy, requiring that students consider many aspects of the issue including economics, sociology, ecotourism, and anthropology.  This will be both a seminar course in the Spring and a 5-week Maymester in the field in Costa Rica.  For the School of Biological Sciences, I teach Advanced Genetics for the Dean's Scholar's honours students and Molecular Genetics.  For the Section of Neurobiology I teach the gateway course: Vertebrate Neurophysiology.  This is an overview of the nervous system and the entry point for neurobiology majors.  There will be a new course in the Spring of 2010 that covers neuroendocrinology, the 'other half' of the nervous system.
I grew up in an isolated farming community and left to study languages and classics at a small liberal arts college in New England.  From there I went to England and earned a degree in engineering (electrical and computer).  I traveled a bit and moved to California and started a small consulting company.  Before coming to Texas, I studied and earned degrees in geology, geography, environmental sciences, field biology, and medicine from schools in California, Rhode Island, and Australia.  After defending a PhD dissertation in molecular neurobiology, I left to teach in New Zealand but returned to Austin to teach at UT.
I race sailboats for fun and eat slow running freshman that come too close to my office door.
10. Flannery O'Connor's collection of stories titled "Everything That Rises Must Converge," led by Dr. Michael Adams, Professor of English: Wednesday, August 26th, 7 PM. This VC will be held on campus in the Joynes Suite, Carothers 007.
About the book:

Flannery O'Connor was working on Everything That Rises Must Converge at the time of her death. This collection is an exquisite legacy from a genius of the American short story, in which she scrutinizes territory familiar to her readers: race, faith, and morality. The stories encompass the comic and the tragic, the beautiful and the grotesque; each carries her highly individual stamp and could have been written by no one else. The story centers around Julian and his mother's weekly trip to the downtown YMCA. Their relationship is mired with constant conflict because Julian is far too self-absorbed to appreciate the many sacrifices his mother has made for him.

About the professor:
Michael Adams is Director of the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program, Associate Director of The James A. Michener Center for Writers, and former director of the creative-writing program at UT. A teacher of English Literature and Advanced Expository Writing at The University of Texas at Austin, Professor Adams is the author of short stories, essays, novels (Blind Man’s Bluff; Anniversaries in the Blood), and a college textbook,  The Writer’s Mind: Making Writing Make Sense.  He is the recipient of numerous teaching awards, including the Liberal Arts Council Teaching Award and the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award, and he has been elected to the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.  A Fulbright Scholar and a former member of the Texas State Bar Plain-Language Committee, Professor Adams is a columnist for the Fifth Circuit Reporter, writing on all aspects of language.  He a member of the Texas Institute of Letters.
11. On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt, led by Dr. Paul Woodruff, Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Undergraduate Studies: Tuesday, September 1st, 7 PM.  This VC will be held at Professor Woodruff's home.  Address information will be distributed to those registered in the VC.
About the book:
On Bullshit is a brief work by a philosopher on a topic every Plan II student needs to master.
About the professor:
A former Plan II director, Paul Woodruff has written on ancient Greek philosophy, ethics, and on the philosophy of theater.  His hobbies include rowing, furniture-making, and music.  He is currently Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies.
12. Galileo’s Daughterby Dava Sobel, led by Dr. Wendy Domjan. Senior Lecturer, Psychology and Assistant Director of Plan II Honors: Monday, August 31st, 7 PM. This VC will be held on campus in the Joynes Suite, Carothers 007.
About the book:
Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of Galileo's daughter, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has written a biography unlike any other of the man Albert Einstein called "the father of modern physics- indeed of modern science altogether." Galileo's Daughter also presents a stunning portrait of a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me."
Of Galileo's three illegitimate children, the eldest best mirrored his own brilliance, industry, and sensibility, and by virtue of these qualities became his confidante. Born Virginia in 1600, she was thirteen when Galileo placed her in a convent near him in Florence, where she took the most appropriate name of Suor Maria Celeste. Her loving support, which Galileo repaid in kind, proved to be her father's greatest source of strength throughout his most productive and tumultuous years. Her presence, through letters which Sobel has translated from their original Italian and masterfully woven into the narrative, graces her father's life now as it did then.

Galileo's Daughter dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishment of a mythic figure whose
 seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. Moving between Galileo's grand public life and Maria Celeste's sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity's perception of its place in the cosmos was about to be overturned. In that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years' War tipped fortunes across Europe, one man sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope.
About the professor:
Wendy Domjan has a Ph.D. in psychology from The University of Wisconsin, with specialties in perception and cognition, and currently has a major focus on psychology of religion and psychology of religious fundamentalism.

 13. The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester, led by Dr. Al Martinich, Professor of Philosophy.  Friday, August 28th, 7 PM. This VC will be held at Professor Martinich's home.  Address information will be distributed to those registered in the VC.

About the book:

China is the future. But where did it come from and what has it accomplished? The Man Who Loved China answers these questions through the biography of the great Joseph Needham, biologist, Christian, nudist, adulterer, Sinologist, adventurer, and accordion player, whose work, Science and Civilization in China, 24 volumes, is one of the most amazing scholarly feats in the history of mankind. Winchester’s book is engaging both as biography and cultural history.

About the professor:

Al Martinich, Roy Allison Vaughan Centennial Professor in Philosophy and Professor of History, Government, and Religious Studies, is the author of many books and articles, including The Philosophy of Language 5th edition (Oxford University Press) and Philosophical Writing 3rd edition (Blackwell). His book, Hobbes: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 1999), won the Robert Hamilton Book Award. He received the Chad Oliver Plan II Teaching Award in 2008.

Additional Recommended Reading

The university will host several exciting authors and writers in the next year for lectures, classroom visits, readings, and workshops.

PLEASE NOTE: All Voltaire’s Coffees will be completely handicap-accessible. Although the majority of the Coffees will be held in the Texas Union or at professors’ homes, some coffees will be held in one of the seminar rooms of the Joynes Reading Room.

If you have any concerns or would like to let us know ahead of time to minimize the possibility of difficulties, please feel free to contact us (Amanda Jones and Elena Dufner), the Academic Co-chairs, ahead of time at

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