Beach Books: 2014-2016 – What Do College and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?

Hundreds of American colleges and universities continue to assign a summer reading to entering freshmen—typically one book, which the students are asked to read outside their courses. Many institutions embed the common reading in a larger program of campus activities: typically, they invite the common reading author to help open the academic year by speaking on campus at convocation. The book usually is chosen by a committee or by student vote, although occasionally by presidential or decanal fiat. The book sometimes is associated with a larger school theme for the academic year, such as Hesston College’s (Kansas) “Be the Change: Caring that Matters.” On other occasions it is associated with an administrative sponsor within the university, such as its Office of Diversity, and thus is selected to promote that sponsor’s institutional mandate. Most colleges see the key purpose of a common reading program as fostering community on campus and student activism in the outside world. Many also declare that common reading is important because it sets academic expectations, begins conversations, and encourages critical thinking, but these goals are meant to be achieved within the matrix of community and activism.

College common reading programs are enduringly popular, meant to build community, dominated by mediocre new books, predominantly progressive, and a homogeneous market. Few classic books are on the reading list. The selection committees often reward publishers for effective marketing rather than use their own judgement.

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