Each year, colleges and universities across the country assign a book as “common reading” to incoming freshmen. Schools typically pick one book and ask students to read it outside of any course requirements. Many times, the author is invited to help kick-off the year by speaking on campus at a seminar or at convocation.
And since 2010, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) has been studying these assignments to find out what books are selected, how many and what kinds of colleges have such programs, as well as how these books are integrated into academics.
Used as popular vehicles for introducing the all-important freshman first year experience, increasingly considered key to freshman retention efforts, summer reading programs provide sneak previews of what colleges consider important, controversial, or just plain interesting.
And they often set the tone for wonderful things to come, as freshmen make life-changing transitions from high school to college.
Unlike traditional “required reading” assignments designed for students to get a little ahead or keep in the practice of reading over the summer, college programs are more targeted to helping “start the conversation” during freshman.
“The common reading usually serves as an introduction to college life and offers a first impression of the mission and academic intensity of the institution,” suggests NAS researchers in their 2014 Beach Books report.
But even the most benign “first year experience” assignments can spark controversy.
In 2011, 60 Minutes ran an exposé on Greg Mortenson, whose books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools had become wildly popular freshman reading. Shortly after, the books were quietly jettisoned from summer 2011 reading lists and invitations to speak were withdrawn. In fact, no college has assigned Three Cups of Tea or Stones into Schools (Mortenson’s 2009) since the controversy, according to the NAS.
And this year, Duke University ran into problems with its recommended summer reading for incoming freshmen. Some students objected to the selection of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, as borderline pornographic and inappropriate reading for students with strong religious values.
“It would be impossible to find a single book that that did not challenge someone’s way of thinking,” said Michael Schoenfeld, a Duke spokesman, in an email interview with Inside Higher Ed. “We understand and respect that, but also hope that students will begin their time at Duke with open minds and a willingness to explore new ideas, whether they agree with them or not.”
So what other books were freshmen reading? Based on an analysis of 341 colleges and universities, the NAS found 231 different titles assigned for 2013-14. The most frequently-selected book (13 institutions—down from 31 the year before) was the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.
The second most assigned, chosen by 11 colleges and universities, was This I Believe II, edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman. The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore came in third.
Other frequently-assigned books were Litle Princes, by Conor Grennan; Wine to Water, by Doc Hendley; and Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
A quick review of reading selections for the Class of 2019 suggests quite a bit of diversity:
Boston College: The Road to Character, by David Brooks
Brown University: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
Clemson University: We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
Columbia University: The Illiad by Homer (the College)
Cornell University: Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
College of Charleston: Freedom Summer: the Savage Season of 1964 that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy, by Bruce Watson
Davidson College: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Drexel University: Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home, by Lise Funderburg
Occidental College: The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert
Princeton University: Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude M. Steele
Rice University: Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude M. Steele
Smith College: The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, by Naomi Oreskes
Tulane University: Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward
UNC-Chapel Hill: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson
University of Pennsylvania: The Big Sea, by Langston Hughes
University of South Carolina: Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple
University of Wisconsin: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson
Vanderbilt University: The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse
And Stanford University traditionally assigns three books to incoming freshmen. This year’s selections include The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson, Cane River, by Lalita Tademy, and This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolfe.
Not to be left out, many local colleges and universities are incorporating summer reading into their 2015 freshman orientation activities.
For example, students at the University of Richmond will be joining UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin in reading Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, while Georgetown University’s summer reading program will feature Romesh Gunesekera and his latest novel, Noontide Troll.
Taking a cue from one of last year’s most popular freshman assignments, Longwood University will be reading The Other Wes Moore, and first year students at Johns Hopkins University will read The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
At American, freshmen will read Chasing Chaos: A Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid, by Jessica Alexander. Not only will Alexander visit AU to discuss the book on September 9, 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 read Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer. Students are also encouraged to enter the New Student Reader Einstein Challenge by using memory tools from the book to remember sets of words, numbers, and names and faces.
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.” This year, Tech students will be reading Little Princes, by Conor Grennan.
Going in a slightly different direction, first year students at Virginia Commonwealth University have been assigned The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore. And Goucher students will be reading The Power of Mindful Learning, by Ellen J. Langer.
While a couple of common reading programs have been discontinued, GW’s among them, the NAS reports that for the most part, these community-wide activities are becoming more popular. Most of the books assigned were non-fiction and more than half were published between 2000 and 2013. And 68 percent of the colleges brought the author to speak on campus.