What the Freshmen Are Reading

Many common reading assignments this year focus on issues of diversity, free speech and immigration.

June 11, 2019
 

Nationwide, many members of the Class of 2023 are thinking about their college arrivals. Educators hope these new students will find commonality in books assigned to freshmen to read over the summer.

With continued conversations of diversity and racial tensions on college campuses, many of the assigned books focus on issues facing marginalized communities. However, the topics of other books being assigned this summer include everything from the hate speech versus free speech debate to issues surrounding food insecurity. At many institutions, the summer reading is representative of a theme that will drive freshman activities and discussions, including bringing speakers to campus related to the reading and hosting events related to the assigned reading.

As in 2016, books focused on the experiences of minority groups were prevalent in this year’s selections. At Colgate University, the committee devoted to common reading was able to find a story that accomplished this goal while also covering Colgate’s goal of discussing classic works. Home Fire, written by Kamila Shamsie, is a story about a family of British Muslims who struggle with modern issues including discrimination. The story, however, was also chosen because it was a reimagining of Sophocles's Antigone, according to Elizabeth Marlowe, an associate professor of art and art history who assisted with the selection of Home Fire.

“Even with the premise that it would be beneficial to read something from a perspective of someone whose demographic profile is different than that of the majority of our students, that in itself is not enough to choose a book,” Marlowe said. “What I like about Home Fire … there’s a lot in this text that make it accessible to our students even when dealing with issues that very few of our students have ever had to grapple with.”

While some colleges don't offer common reading books, Marlowe said the program is helpful in connecting freshmen with one another.

“It’s an idea we hold on to very tightly,” Marlowe said. “There is something exciting about everyone reading a book together, and [it] sets a really nice message to incoming students that this is an intellectual community they are joining and that we expect them to be thinking and talking about their books. That is the fundamental basis for our community here.”

At Grinnell College, Vrinda Varia, director of intercultural affairs, said the college's book was chosen with a number of factors in mind, including seeking a book with a focus on social justice and relevancy to students. Grinnell chose The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez, about Hispanic immigrants facing trials living in the United States. Varia said the book was chosen because it offers new perspectives to students and its story was relevant given current events.

“Having it feel like something relevant to the current context did feel like something we wanted it to do,” Varia said. “We weren’t looking for a text where you necessarily have to analyze our current political state around immigration; our hope was to make it feel relevant and contemporary so that it is relatable.”

Among other books in the field of diversity issues, Texas Christian University has asked incoming students to read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which is about a high school student who witnesses a black friend's shooting by a white police officer. The book explores racial consciousness and injustice. Lavonne Adams, an associate professor of nursing at TCU and a member of the committee that selected the book, said via email that the committee believes the book will increase awareness of cultural diversity among incoming freshmen.

However, themes varied at other universities. For example, at Miami University in Ohio, students will read One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl's Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture by Stephanie Anderson, which focuses on issues in the food production industry and environmentalism. At Adelphi University, Emory University, and Middle Tennessee State University, students will read Educated by Tara Westover, which focuses on the way lives are affected by a strong education.

Among other themes explored by common reading assignments for 2019 was the concept of activism and free speech. At Washington University in St. Louis, students will read HATE: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship by Nadine Strossen, which focuses on the idea that hate speech should not be censored but instead met with more powerful speech condemning it. According to Washington University’s common reading website, the book will “introduce students to the spirit of inquiry and debate that is integral to the Washington University academic community.”

In the vein of activism, students at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania will read Glimmer of Hope, a book written by survivors of the Parkland school shooting in Florida. Rachel Collins, director of the first-year experience at Arcadia, said Glimmer of Hope has a powerful message about making one’s voice heard. Collins said though gun reform can be a divisive issue to discuss, she believes it will lead to strong conversation among students.

“This is a book about young people figuring out how to create change in the world, how to get powerful politicians and leaders to listen to them, and how to build momentum and passion on issues they care about,” Collins said. “We want Arcadia students to learn how to become change makers in whatever their chosen field is. While opinions on gun reform -- and many important issues -- can be polarizing, part of the common read’s role is to facilitate discussions among people who might disagree. Learning to discuss critical issues across differences is an important aspect of a university education and is preparation for participation in civic life.”

Other summer selections include:

  • How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate by Andrew J. Hoffman, assigned at Smith College.
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, assigned at Bucknell University.
  • Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, assigned at Meredith College.
  • Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey, assigned at Lawrence University.
  • A collection of columns published in The New York Times called “Hungry City” by Ligaya Mishan, assigned at Fordham University.
  • Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka, assigned at Connecticut College.

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