Beach Books: What Do Colleges Want Students to Read Outside Class?

I’ve been on Seton Hill’s summer reading committee for the past couple years. (My suggestion a couple years ago of Little Brother did not make it, and I was rooting for another colleague’s recent suggestion of Ender’s Game.  This year we considered The Kite Runner and The Last Lecture, but rejected them as downers. So it’s Three Cups of Tea.)

As a committee, we’ve wondered whether our primary goal is to select challenging books of lasting literary quality, to introduce students to current events that are immediately relevant, or to pick something that students will actually, you know, read. Yes, we can be optimistic and say we hope our choices fit more than one category, but institutional criteria vary about as much as personal literary tastes.

The National Association of Scholars has published an interesting critique of summer reading programs. Given the conservative slant of the organization, I was not surprised to find that the study concluded that book choices lean to the left, but the study also categorizes and analyzes book choices on other axes.

The NAS advocates a return to the “great books” model. To be honest I would love the idea of having all students read the same book — any book — each year (not just freshman year).

At Seton Hill, we do have a useful cultural studies sequence that begins with a cultural identities reader in a freshman writing course, and then a two-course “Western Culture and Tradition” requirement that most students take as sophomores. I find that when students can draw on that experience, they get much more out of their upper-level literary and media theory courses. But students also stand to gain so much more from the experience of returning to a specific, common text numerous times, from numerous scholarly perspectives.  For example, a biology teacher could examine the fictional description of vampirism in Twilight, while a sociologist could look at the vampire vs werewolf conflict, a business prof could look at the marketing surrounding the book, and so forth.

We had some success with this when we chose Nickle and Dimed, and theater program staged a dramatization of the book, and we were fortunate to have some of the co-authors of They Poured Fire On Us from the Sky the year we chose that book. But at SHU there is no mechanism to formalize, or even encourage, this kind of curricular synergy.

Reading is the gateway skill to college success. Careful reading, close reading, sustained reading, critical reading, and re-reading — with writing at every step of the process — lead to advanced deep thinking. There are, of course, other kinds of advanced thinking, such as the lateral thinking characterized by the ability to connect and remix, which enables the bright students to float through high school on a wave of summaries, worksheets, and NCLB testing prep. But when it comes to college success, lateral thinking is no substitute for the patience and discipline one develops from engaging with a long, complex text — something that takes multiple multiple sittings, at several hours per sitting, to work through.

It’s not necessary to agree with the NAS’s conservative perspective in order to gain insight from the way the group frames its study of college reading programs in a multicultural society:

Can one book really serve as the common foundation of a college education? Perhaps it depends on the book. Homer’s Iliad served a function not unlike that for classical Greece; the Bible was long the foundation for teaching in the Western world. But the common reading programs of today are not modeled on the Greek ideal of Paideia or the Christian conception of Scripture. Rather, “common reading” as practiced by American colleges seems to be grounded on something more like the idea of Oprah’s Book Club. That is to say, that students can experience the sense of being up‐to‐date, in‐the‐know, and able to talk easily with others about something that is popular now. 

In this sense, the common reading programs, on the whole, are disappointing. Rather than asking students to stretch to the demands of college‐level study, they shrink college‐level study to the comfort zone of the average student.  National Association of Scholars (PDF) via