Summer may be winding down, but there’s still time left for summer reading! Colleges and universities across the country have instituted Common Reading Programs, where all students – or at least all freshmen – will read a title selected for the program and discuss that title with their peers and instructors in the fall. These discussions will often be integrated into the student orientation, either in classes or in special events dedicated to the program. Both the reading assignments and the events scheduled around them give freshmen students something to make those first few weeks easier: a natural conversation starter.
Regardless of where they’re from, what they’re studying, or what extracurricular groups they may join, students will have the opportunity to share their thoughts on the same book. If students are reluctant to start those conversations on their own, many schools provide opportunities at orientation events. About 40 percent of college orientations this year will include discussions of a common reading assignment, according to the National Resources Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina and as reported by the New York Times. Presentations from the authors make a popular choice – in fact, the National Association of Scholars found that 51 percent of authors whose works were selected for common reading in 2016 appeared on campus at some point. Other common reading events will revolve around the theme of the selected work. For example, students who read Frankenstein at Gustavus Adolphus College this summer will participate in a “campuswide exploration of the ethical questions brought up by bioengineering like genome editing, genetic testing and cloning” (Goldstein, New York Times). The themes of the works often will play a role in their selection – in this case, Frankenstein gives students a chance to investigate the role of technology in modern life.
Though approximately 400 colleges have announced common reading selections for the 2017 – 2018 academic year, several themes have begun to emerge amongst their selections. Many of these titles are contemporary nonfiction books with themes on diversity and multiculturalism, published no earlier than 2010. The top choices of 2017 include Ta-Neshi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, and Jennine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers. Coates’s work explores the violence done to the black male body in America; Stevenson’s memoir calls for criminal justice reform; Crucet’s novel follows a Cuban-American woman torn between her working-class family and life at a liberal arts college. As Dana Goldstein reports for The New York Times, “College administrators say books that emphasize themes such as diversity and tolerance can help nonwhite and first-generation college students feel more comfortable on campus.”
The group that compiles an annual report on these common reading books, The National Association of Scholars, lament these choices in their report as too “progressive,” “homogeneous,” “mediocre,” and “predictable”, praising schools that chose less conventional choices, or classics, for their programs. On their list for the “100 Recommended Books for College Common Reading,” NAS includes Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). David Randall, the author of the NAS’s annual report, told Goldstein that the popular contemporary choices do not stretch the mind as well as authors like Aristotle and Austen. While the NAS recommends some fine reading choices, colleges must also consider what choices are most likely to engage students in their summer month, “to ensure that incoming freshmen actually read them” (Goldstein). For programs where the reading is not linked to a first-year class or a required writing assignments, students who have plans to work, travel, or spend time with friends and family may opt to skip these books, so contemporary works that deal with topics already in the popular discourse may capture their interests more than classics with which they're already familiar.
Many of these recommendations from the NAS are likely to appear on students’ reading lists before long (if they haven't already), as many of their choices are standards on syllabi for general education or literature courses. Therefore, these Common Reading Programs offer college campuses an opportunity to add more diversity into their curriculum, something that universities have been struggling with “…in the aftermath of student protests against the dearth of people of color on their campuses and in their coursework” (Emily Deruy, The Atlantic). These common reading assignments give students the chance to broaden their perspectives as they head to a campus with students from different cultures and backgrounds.
Of course, not all of the books choices for these programs carry the same themes. Another popular choice on the list is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, which “explores issues of social breakdown among working-class whites, such as drug use and child neglect” (New York Times). Specialized schools might tailor their selections to their student population. For example, religious schools are more likely to choose older books with themes of faith, such as Silence by Shusaku Endo, a 1966 novel about a Jesuit missionary in 17th-century Japan. The decision-makers for these programs vary; Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania has the current student body, faculty, and staff vote on a theme for a collection of short readings – this summer’s packet opens with President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University in 2016, which encourages free speech and individual thinking everywhere, including college campuses. Overall, Common Summer Reading Programs are an exciting way to engage college students before they even arrive on campus, granting them an opportunity to explore the themes of a text on their own before freely discussing those themes within their new college community.
Questions: Does your school have a Common Reading Program? If so, what book(s) did they select? If not, what would you select if you could?
See below to see what else college students have been reading this summer!