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Common Reading, Common Ground

January 11, 2012

SEATTLE – First-year reading programs, in which colleges ask all incoming students to read the same book, have become increasingly popular in recent years; they have also sparked myriad controversies and objections, large and small. Perhaps the most comprehensive critiques of these programs have come from the National Association of Scholars, which in 2010 and again in 2011 released reports castigating universities for choosing books that the association sees as too liberal, too focused on issues of race and ethnicity (and particularly on African Americans), too easy, too recent, too similar to one another and too far from the classics.

While many (though certainly not all) members of the Modern Language Association champion the same canonical works touted by the National Association of Scholars, the two organizations aren't known for their shared curricular views. But at a Sunday panel on “Common First-Year Readings/Themes: Practice, Problems, Promise,” a number of the presenters' points echoed some in the National Association of Scholars' reports.

Organizer Dale Larson, of Grays Harbor College, noted that the topic of first-year readings had “never been formally addressed by the MLA” – which is not as surprising as the trend’s popularity might lead one to believe, since the goals of a common freshman reading experience are generally agreed to center more on building a community and providing common ground for discussion than on the study of literature as such.

At the same time, there does seem to be something intrinsically academic about assigning students to read a book; the 2011 NAS report notes that “[c]ommon reading programs are extracurricular and may seem peripheral to campus academic life, but the choice of a single book for this purpose is often (and probably rightly) understood as emblematic of a college’s values.”

To judge by the panel here, the relationship between the whole notion of a summer reading program and an institution’s values is a vexed one.

The first presenter, K.J. Peters of Loyola Marymount University, argued that first-year reading programs are ultimately about the bottom line: “…[S]tudent retention is a matter of institutional fiscal health,” Peters said. “A student with a strong sense of belonging is less likely to drop out.… [A] dropout is bad news for the recruitment office, admissions, housing and food service, alumni relations, the registrar, and every university official who thinks in terms of reputation, image, and predictable funding streams. The solution of the moment appears to be common book programs….”

Peters, an associate professor of English, is not just a faculty member bearing a grudge because his book suggestion wasn’t chosen; in fact, he’s the director of the LMU Book Program and the person charged with the ultimate selection of the book. In his view, the trouble with first-year reading programs is not that they exist, nor even that the choice of a single book is somehow supposed to satisfy a wide range of competing constituencies. (“University relations wants a best-selling author to visit the campus and make headlines; the Jesuits [want] a common book that explores the Catholic tradition; the university budget office wants a speaker for $4,000.... Professors want a rigorous book; the administration wants a book they can hand to the trustees without cringing.”)

The real problem, Peters said, is that “increasingly, the common book is becoming an assigned text in first-year writing programs and first-year seminars,” because “first-year writing courses are permeable.” In order to provide a shared experience for all students, the common book must be read by all students; in order to be read by all students, the book must be required reading, and therefore, at many institutions, attached to a required course. This frequently ends up being the first-year writing course, so often taught by the “teaching assistants and part-time writing instructors” who are the least able to resist administrative incursions into their classrooms.

In such situations, Peters argued, “literature in service of community” becomes literature in service of utilitarian economic goals – a “significant departure” from its traditional role in the classroom.

While other panelists addressed different aspects of the topic, the relationship between common book programs and academic values cropped up again and again. Harvey Michael Teres, an associate professor of English at Syracuse University, noted that one reason for the proliferation of common book programs is a desire on the part of educators “to compensate for the diminished set of commonly read and referenced readings,” and even “to restore such readings in higher education.” (This latter being perhaps the dearest wish of the National Association of Scholars, which in its reports on common reading programs and elsewhere argues for the reinstatement of core curriculums and a return to the study of – primarily Western – classic works of literature.)

“It’s not uncommon,” Teres said, for many canonical works of literature to be “basically terra incognita” for students – even graduate students and English majors. Of course, he added, first-year reading programs are more about encouraging certain desirable community values than about restoring the prominence of particular writers and traditions. These values, such as “diversity and difference” and “encouraging a tolerant and hospitable campus” contribute to “the sameness and predictability of the texts that are chosen.” (Again, not a point the NAS would likely dispute.)

Like Peters, Teres sees one issue with common book programs as a lack of faculty control: “The faculty as a whole is not consulted because these texts are chosen by administrative wizards behind the curtain… in terms of faculty governance and academic freedom, this is not the ideal arrangement."

Teres’s view may not be broadly representative – on many if not most campuses, faculty members are involved in book selection. Panelist Peter Michael Huk, a lecturer in the writing program at the University of California at Santa Barbara, noted that the UCSB READS program is managed by “faculty and librarians,” who choose texts that are "always exciting and provocative.” Still, he said, their "application in the classroom leads to complex issues.”

Panelist Samantha Riley, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had a different complaint about common readings and the first-year composition classroom: namely, that she isn’t supposed to bring UNC’s into hers. “….[N]either the English department nor the university at large provides any incentives for instructors to incorporate this text into our courses,” Riley said, noting that “instructors (who are mostly teaching assistants) are generally not allowed to incorporate texts of any great length or depth into their syllabi – they don’t want us deviating from the focus of writing.

“…What do we teach, if we are not allowed to teach texts, themes, or content?"

 

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