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PPE Reading Group members stand together and smile at the camera in Gourmet Kingdom restaurant.
PPE reading group leader and graduate student Will Kanwischer (kneeling, front row), with, from left, Andrew Schuler, Christopher Westcott, Willow Yang, Liam Cuppett, Luming Jia, Zach Kingery, Matseoi Zau and Micah Mangot at Gourmet Kingdom. (photo by Donn Young)

Undergraduate student reading groups, hosted by the Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program, meet weekly to discuss challenging topics over noodles and dumplings.

It is the third time junior Zach Kingery has joined a Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) Program reading group.

The reading groups are hosted by the popular PPE minor, which is based in the philosophy department in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. Each semester, students sign up to read a book and participate in weekly discussion groups led by a faculty member or graduate student. Conversation flows as the groups sit around tables and pass steaming plates of Szechuan food, family style, at Carrboro’s Gourmet Kingdom. Participants receive no academic credit, yet signups fill up so quickly that there are usually waiting lists. Each semester, four groups meet for eight weeks, with 10 to 12 students per group.

PPE celebrated the 10th year of the reading groups, designed to appeal to students of all majors, last fall.

Kingery joined a reading group during his first year at Carolina, then again his sophomore year. This spring he is reading Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. His group is led by Will Kanwischer, a graduate teaching fellow in philosophy.

“The discussions are really great,” said Kingery, who is a geography and environment major. “It is different than a class — people are more open and talkative.”

Kingery said he has enjoyed building the debate skills he first learned in high school, but more importantly, he is cultivating the practice of active listening.

Students sit around a round table discussing a book in 2018 at Gourmet Kingdom.
Students discuss a reading group selection at Gourmet Kingdom in 2018. (photo by Donn Young)

“These groups are helping me to not just listen to someone in anticipation of asking the next question, but to listen to gain something from another perspective, to understand what another person is saying,” he said. “This cross-applicable skill of learning about other people’s ideas seems like the most valuable skill in the world right now.”

Discussion leader Erik Zhang, teaching assistant professor of philosophy, also finds that students tend to be more engaged when they take a leading role in their own learning. His group is reading Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero. The author, Tyler Cowen, will speak on campus April 10 as part of the PPE Speaker Series.

“Every week I assign a student to be the leader of whatever chapter we are discussing. They do a quick summary and then throw out a question or two to get the discussion started,” said Zhang, who teaches courses in the PPE minor. “Most of the time the discussion just organically develops from there.”

Zhang said he is impressed by the motivation and dedication of the students who participate in the reading groups.

“I think that most of us are just intellectually curious individuals,” he said. “It’s more fun, more fruitful, more engaging if we discuss ideas with other people. And what gives me hope is these students always unfailingly interact with each other respectfully and in a civil way.”

Sophomore Anna Legge, a political science major who is pursuing the PPE minor, is a part of Zhang’s reading group. This is her second time joining a reading group — she first learned about them after participating in a PPE salon, a one-off small discussion group focused on discourse on a particular topic in the style of an 18th-century French salon.

“UNC is a big school, and I like having a more intimate setting to discuss things like this,” she said. “Philosophy is so personal to each person, and each person has different perspectives to draw on. I like knowing that I’m with people who have applied proactively to be here.”

Closeup of a student in 2018 reading a book.
PPE recently celebrated the 10th year of the reading groups; this photo was taken in 2018. (photo by Donn Young)

Legge said she also enjoyed leading one of the reading group sessions.

“I found that even more rewarding to read the chapter and take notes and ask probing questions of others around the table,” she said.

DeeAnn Spicer, a graduate teaching fellow in philosophy, is leading a reading group focused on the book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) by Elizabeth Anderson.

Spicer also asks students to take turns being a discussion leader, which creates a sense of accountability and investment among participants, “like we’re all going on this journey together.” She said she is always surprised by how many people sign up for the reading groups, and she finds that really encouraging.

“For me, the main appeal is getting back to the inherent value and joy of learning new things just for learning’s sake,” she said. “They start to see themselves as academics and not just students through this process. They learn that they have something to add to the discussion and to trust their own voices.”

Having these discussions over dinner makes it feel more relaxed and casual, said Spicer, like a group of friends coming together to talk about something interesting.

Kingery, who loves to cook and is “quite serious about food,” agreed. (For first-timers, he highly recommends Gourmet Kingdom’s ma po tofu and the lotus root.)

“Without a doubt, food is an excellent lubricant for meaningful social and intellectual interaction,” Kingery said.

Learn more about what the PPE reading groups are tackling this semester by visiting

By Kim Spurr, College of Arts and Sciences











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