Middlebury

First-year seminar sorts fact from fiction in Dan Brown page turners [video]

October 29, 2009

Middlebury, Vt. - What can a best-selling author teach college students about serious scholarship? A lot if it's the right author says Middlebury Professor of Russian Language and Literature Tom Beyer. In his first-year seminar, "The Keys to Angels & Demons," Beyer focuses his students on sorting out fact from fiction in the books of Dan Brown, whose phenomenal successes include "The DaVinci Code" and "Angels & Demons."

Video (1:57)

All Middlebury first-year students take a writing-intensive seminar on a topic of their choosing, and many of the students chose this class because they love Brown's books.

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Even as they roll their eyes about the stock characters - there's always a beautiful, brilliant woman scientist, a darkly obsessed villain - most admit they can't put the books down once they start reading.

They're not alone, of course. Brown's newest book, "The Lost Symbol," sold more than a million copies on its first day in print. The fast-paced suspense thrillers can be irresistible to fans of mystery, puzzles, symbols and suspense.

But Beyer has not chosen the books for their literary value, which, as the students point out, is suspect at times. Rather, he is intrigued by the trademark blend of fact and fiction and its remarkable influence on the popular imagination. Brown fills his pages with complex descriptions of people, places artwork and history that can be very convincing.

"Brown has really tried to blur the lines in his novels," Beyer tells the class, "and the danger from my perspective as a scholar is that you have 80 million readers and as many as 79 million think that what he's saying about these institutions is true."

Beyond a very entertaining read, those blurred lines present an opportunity to plant the seeds of serious scholarship, says Beyer. The intrigue of the stories draws the students in and, hopefully, prompts them to dig deeper and develop their research skills as they pick topics to write about. It's a skill Beyer urgently believes students must cultivate in the age of slippery research tools like Google and Wikipedia.

As part of their course work, the students will publish a wiki - a collaborative Web site that allows multiple users to make edits - which will serve as a guide to what they've discovered about actual facts in "Angels & Demons." Beyer notes that a Web site created by one of his previous classes that focused on "The DaVinci Code" has received more than 10,000 hits. He likes the idea that the students' research and writing will be open to scrutiny from potentially hundreds or even thousands of viewers online. He believes it gives them extra motivation to produce quality research and clear writing.

"The whole purpose behind this course is really to raise the intellectual curiosity that marks a scholar," Beyer says, "I want students to get excited about any aspect of the novel or the film: of the geography, the history, the architecture, and then to prepare them for doing research. I'd like to jumpstart the people in this class to become the scholars that I know they're capable of becoming."

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