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ERIC Number: ED558530
Record Type: Non-Journal
Publication Date: 2014-Oct
Pages: 192
Abstractor: ERIC
Beach Books: 2013-2014. What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?
Thorne, Ashley; Turscak, Marilee; Wood, Peter
National Association of Scholars
Assigning a summer reading to entering freshmen is a growing trend at hundreds of American colleges and universities. Colleges typically pick one book and ask students to read it outside their courses. Many invite the author to help kick off the year by speaking on campus at convocation. Most colleges see the key purpose of a common reading program as an opportunity to build community on campus. Many also declare that common reading is important because it sets academic expectations, begins conversations, inspires social activism, and encourages critical thinking. This years' annual "Beach Books" reports is the most comprehensive and the only one to categorize the books according to their main subjects and track trends in genres, publication dates, and additional themes. The study for the academic year 2013-2014 covers 341 colleges and universities and the 231 books they assigned. The authors present the results of their study in terms of findings, facts, and gaps. Their findings: (1) Common reading programs are becoming more popular; (2) The list of readings continues to be dominated by recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books; (3) The assigned books frequently emphasize progressive political themes, and the top subject category is multiculturalism; (4) Colleges increasingly see their common reading as exercises in community-building more than student preparation for academic life; and (5) A common reading "industry" is emerging, with publishers, authors, and colleges seeking to advance a particular kind of book. The facts: (1) Author speaking: Of the 341 colleges in our study, 231 (68 percent) brought the author to speak on campus. Having the author speak is seen as a priority for common reading programs; (2) Rationales: 77 percent of colleges said that the purpose of their common reading programs was to foster "community," or create "common" or "shared" experiences among those on and near the campus; (3) Recent: More than half of common reading assignments (51 percent) were published between 2010 and 2013, and only five books were from before 1900; (4) Non-fiction: 72 percent of assignments were memoirs, biographies, essays, and other non-fiction; and (5) Turnover: 82 percent of this year's titles are different from last year's. Some books that were popular a few years ago are now waning or have disappeared. Many new books, some published as recently as the year in which they were assigned, are being introduced. The gaps: (1) Classics: Only four colleges assigned works that could be considered classics. Those were Melville's short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (LeMoyne College), a compilation of Shakespeare's works (Indiana University, South Bend), the book of Job from the Bible (St. Michael's College), and Edgar Allen Poe's Great Tales and Poems (University of Wisconsin, Parkside). Other than these exceptions, the hundreds of common reading programs across the country ignored books of lasting merit. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Austen, and Hemingway were not to be found. There was no trace of Twain, Tolstoy, Brontë, Wilde, Hawthorne, Douglass, or Steinbeck. No "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Great Gatsby," "The Count of Monte Cristo," or even "Catcher in the Rye"; (2) Fiction: Only 28 percent of common reading assignments were fictional. While fiction isn't going away in the larger scheme of contemporary reading, colleges are predisposed against it because they want to show students socially-engaged authors who are active in the real world; (3) Modern literature: Even in confining themselves to living authors, colleges neglect some of the best ones, such as Marilynne Robinson, Thomas Pynchon, Wendell Berry, Donna Tart, Tom Wolfe, and Don DeLillo; (4) History: Other than a "media package" on the civil rights movement assigned by the University of Alabama, Birmingham, no colleges assigned any works of history; and (5) Diversity: There is essentially a common reading genre--inspiring stories, apocalyptic visions, self-assigned projects, identity crises, advice manuals, and curious trends in human behavior--this is the stuff of common reading, and rarely do colleges deviate from these norms. The most-assigned book, for the third year in a row, is "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." While there were fewer classic books assigned in 2013-2014 than the year before, there were more "honorable mentions," books that treat academic subjects (i.e. physics, economics, poetry, philosophy) with depth and detail, as well as others that take an uncharacteristically hopeful view of immigration, hard work, or life's challenges. The authors note that college administrators and outside observers have been asking questions as to the value of campus common reading programs and students also have doubts about the value of common reading programs. While they recognize the potential of the programs to build intellectual community, students are often disappointed to be given an unchallenging book, or a book ostensibly chosen to fulfill a diversity obligation. The study offers 12 recommendations to colleges for choosing better books and making the most of the common reading experience. Appended are: (1) Key and Totals; (2) Books Chosen as Common Reading 2013-2014: Full List by Institution Name; (3) Titles by Subject Category; (4) By Institution Type; (5) Beach Books in Practice: "The View From My Island"; (6) Common Reading Programs: "Beginning The Process"; (7) Common Reading Books and a Measure of Student Reaction to Them; (8) "Caught with Gay Books: South Carolina Punishes Colleges for Freshman Reading Choices"; and (9) "Williams Reads' Book Selection was a Flop." [For the previous edition, "Beach Books: 2011-2012. What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read outside Class?," see ED540342.]
National Association of Scholars. 221 Witherspoon Street 2nd Floor, Princeton, NJ 08542-3215. Tel: 609-683-7878; e-mail:; Web site:
Publication Type: Reports - Evaluative
Education Level: Higher Education
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: N/A
Authoring Institution: National Association of Scholars (NAS)
Grant or Contract Numbers: N/A