Jul 16, 2012

Summer Reading Assignments Reveal What Colleges Consider Important, Controversial, or Just Plain Interesting

Catholic University of America
Last fall, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) updated its review of summer reading assignments as popular introductions to the all-important first year experience.

In fact, freshman reading programs may provide interesting sneak previews of what colleges consider important, controversial, or just plain interesting.

And they hopefully set the tone for wonderful things to come.

Unlike traditional “required reading” assignments designed for students to get a little ahead or keep in the practice of reading over the summer, the college programs are more targeted to helping “start the conversation” during freshman orientation.
“Common reading programs are extra-curricular and may seem peripheral to campus academic life, but the choice of a single book for this purpose is often … understood as emblematic of a college’s values,” suggests NAS researchers in the 2011 report, titled “Beach Books.” 

And even the most benign “first year experience” assignments can spark controversy.  
In April 2011, 60 Minutes ran an exposé on Greg Mortenson, whose books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools had become wildly popular freshmen reading.  Shortly after, the books were quietly jettisoned from summer 2011 reading lists and invitations to speak were reconsidered.

So what did freshmen read instead? Based on an analysis of 245 programs, the NAS found the most frequently-selected book last year was the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (ethics in research) by Rebecca Skloot.  Other popular books in 2011 included This I Believe, Zeitoun, The Other Wes Moore, and Outcasts United.
Only two books “that could loosely be termed ‘classics’,” Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court were found on the list. 

The study looked at the themes and politics of the books selected for freshman reading and concluded that books about multiculturalism, immigration or racism were most popular (100 colleges).  The NAS also tracked books for which movie versions exist or are in production (64), comic books/graphic novels (10), and books with a Hurricane Katrina theme (10).

The NAS noted that in addition to the utter banishment of both Mortenson books, the formerly-popular Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich appears to have been retired from required reading lists.  More books with a Native American theme were chosen, with Sherman Alexie among the most cited authors.  As always, memoirs are the dominant genre with recurring themes about overcoming obstacles to success.

Following the growing trend, many local colleges and universities are incorporating summer reading into 2012 freshman orientation activities.

Students at the University of Richmond and Longwood University will be reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and at Georgetown they will read The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.

At American, freshmen will read The End of Country, by Seamus McGraw. Not only will McGraw will visit AU to discuss the book on September 5th, but students will also have the opportunity to win $200 in an essay contest following the presentation.

Further to the east, freshmen at Salisbury University will once again read Picking Cotton, by Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton. Both authors will be available at an evening event for students, and Ms. Thompson will be the featured speaker at Convocation.

Established in 1998, Virginia Tech’s Common Book Project is designed to enrich the first-year experience and create “sense of community for undergraduate students.”  For the second consecutive year, all incoming students will be given a copy of This I Believe II, which will also be the reading assignment for students at Lynchburg College.

Marking the sixth year of the First Year Experience program, freshmen at St. Mary’s College of Maryland will read When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka.

First year students at Virginia Commonwealth University have been assigned Full Body Burden, by Krisen Iverson.  At the University of Maryland, freshmen will read The Influencing Machine by Brook Gladstone, and at Goucher, they will read An Enemy of the People by Arthur Miller.

George Washington University requires all incoming freshmen students to participate in a summer reading program, the book for which will be War, by Sebastian Junger.  In addition, students at GW’s School of Business will read Pour Your Heart Into It:  How Starbucks build a Company One Cup at a Time, by Howard Schultz, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks.

But it's at Catholic University where the most innovative, multimedia summer reading program may be found.

Departing from traditional freshman assignments, Dr. Todd Lidh, director the CUA First Year Experience program, collected 34 independent short readings which he placed online and mailed home in hardcopy to students.  Each piece is accompanied by an online response from a member of the CUA community as well as by links to other material on the internet.  Students are invited to provide insights, reflections, and comments as they go along.

Starting with an excerpt from James Joyce's  Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Dr. Lidh challenges students to think about their place in the universe—“Who am I? What am I doing here?"   And drawing on the power of the internet to connect members of the freshman class to the University, he hopes to set the tone for what is bound to be an amazing first year experience.

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