A Little Heavy Reading

Common reading choices for incoming freshmen this year center on diversity and race relations and tend to feature nonfiction, but a few colleges go with literary classics.

July 22, 2015
 

Social justice. Climate change. Racial inequality. Immigration. Hunger. While those topics might read like a laundry list of some of the world’s biggest problems, they are just a few of the issues covered in books that are required reading for freshmen at colleges across the country.

Freshman reading programs are popular among institutions, used as a community-building project that helps freshmen to unite academically with a common discussion on one book. The selections are generally skewed toward nonfiction (although fiction is sometimes selected), and choices for this year are no different.

Out of 121 institutions surveyed by Inside Higher Ed, the top pick was Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Redemption and Justice, with 10 institutions electing to use the book as its common reading. Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and a law professor at New York University, writes about his experiences trying to help -- and sometimes failing -- to overturn death and prison sentences for criminals Stevenson believes to be wrongly convicted. The majority of those criminals are black men.

The book will be read by incoming students at California State University at Chico; Colorado and Butte Colleges; Michigan State, Northern Arizona, Northern Illinois and Washington State Universities; and the Universities of Delaware, North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Wisconsin at Madison.

Other titles on the freshman reading list this year range from The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities at Ohio State University to Bad Feminist at the University of California at Los Angeles and Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash at Rowan and Lock Haven Universities. Texts on economics, sustainability and food remained popular, but were second to books dealing with topics such as diversity and race relations.

The Other Wes Moore, a nonfiction book about two black boys named Wes Moore who grew up blocks away from each other in Baltimore but had dramatically different outcomes in life, written by one of its namesakes, has been a popular freshman reading choice over the past three years. At least six colleges will feature the book this year.

Kathleen Muzevich, an assistant professor of education and the director of the First-Year Seminar at Alvernia University in Pennsylvania, said she and others at Alvernia had been recommended The Other Wes Moore in the past, and were particularly attracted to the book because the author was available to lecture on campus, adding another dimension to the story for students.

She said all professors teaching a freshman seminar will incorporate the book into their curriculum in any way they wish, but she is most interested on hearing students’ reactions to the book after protests over the death of Freddie Gray broke out in Baltimore earlier this year.

“It’s a book that some of our students might be able to relate to and open up,” Muzevich said. “And yes, some of our students have not lived in that kind of a culture or setting, so I’m really looking forward to some very good and engaged conversations.”

Enrique's Journey will also be taught by at least five colleges this year. The book, which tells the story of a Honduran boy searching for his mother after she goes to the U.S. to find work, has been widely popular on summer reading lists and has served as required reading for nearly 80 higher education institutions since its publication in 2007.

"This astonishing story puts a human face on the ongoing debate about immigration reform in the United States," reads a summary on the website for the University of New Mexico, where all incoming freshmen will be required to read the book. "Now a beloved classic, this page-turner about the power of family is a popular text in classrooms and a touchstone for communities across the country to engage in meaningful discussions about this essential American subject."

Some critics (most notably the National Association of Scholars) have criticized a relative lack of serious literature among selections. While relatively new works and nonfiction dominate reading lists, some fiction and classics make appearances. Cornell University elected to read Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut attended the university), freshmen at the University of Kansas will read A Farewell to Arms and Southern Methodist University chose Station Eleven, a dystopian science fiction novel.

Just Mercy

Stevenson’s book, the hit this year, is recent, having been published in October. But the directors of programs that chose the memoir said the themes -- like mass incarceration and race relations -- struck a chord with them, especially in light of recent events in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and New York City.

Karen Weathermon, co-director of the Common Reading Program at Washington State University, said a different book on a similar topic, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, had been nominated multiple times but had never been selected because it wasn't considered to be a good fit for freshmen.

But after the book made it farther along the selection process this year, Weathermon set out to find a book with similar themes. After reading an advance copy of Just Mercy, she passed it along to the selection committee, and the title was soon chosen by the university’s provost.

Weathermon said the book was relevant in not just a national context but fit in with conversations on campus about race. Tensions flared at Washington State earlier this year when a member of the university’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity allegedly made a racial slur toward a group of black women on campus.

“The point of the program isn’t, ‘here’s what you should think about this topic,’ but ‘here’s this topic that deserves our attention and these are the ways we can approach it,' and particularly with this one, because it gets so much attention in the news,” Weathermon said. “You hear all of these stories about protests and charges of racial biases in policing and the use of force and so on. So you hear those stories all the time, but what are really the issues behind that?”

And with so many universities developing curricula for a new book at the same time, staffers from across the country are reaching out and discussing lesson plans to make sure their students get as much out of the book as possible.

Rebecca Campbell, the director and department chair for academic transition programs at Northern Arizona University, has created summaries of the book's themes that she's shared with the university's faculty in an attempt to engage them more thoroughly with the novel.

She said she has never received as great of a response for a book from faculty as she has for Just Mercy.

"Frequently, in the TED Talk and throughout the book and everything you read where [Stevenson] has spoken, he talks about how everyone is bigger than their biggest mistakes," Campbell said. "First-year students make a lot of mistakes, we all make a lot of mistakes, so it's also a book about resiliency and finding resiliency in ourselves to overcome our mistakes."

Denise Rode, the director of the First- and Second-Year Experience at Northern Illinois University, will help guide students through Just Mercy for their first two years at the university and said she has been in touch with Weathermon and Campbell, among others, to help plan programming for the fall semester.

She said the book hits home for some of the university’s students -- the campus is roughly 60 miles from Chicago and attracts many students from the area. She said some of the student population is likely to at least know someone affected by themes discussed in Stevenson’s work.

“The hope is that they understand the issues raised in this book, that they see a connection between their lives and the lives of those in prison -- perhaps wrongly imprisoned -- and decide whether they want to change our world in that respect,” Rode said.

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