Periodically, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) updates its review of summer reading assignments as popular vehicles for introducing the all-important freshman first year experience.
In fact, freshman reading programs provide interesting sneak previews of what colleges consider important, controversial, or just plain interesting.
And they often set the tone for wonderful things to come, as freshmen make life-changing transitions from high school to college.
Unlike traditional “required reading” assignments designed for students to get a little ahead or keep in the practice of reading over the summer, college programs are more targeted to helping “start the conversation” during freshman orientation.
“Common reading programs are extra-curricular and may seem peripheral to campus academic life, but the choice of a single book for this purpose is often … understood as emblematic of a college’s values,” suggests NAS researchers in their 2011 report.
And even the most benign “first year experience” assignments can spark controversy.
In April 2011, 60 Minutes ran an exposé on Greg Mortenson, whose books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools had become wildly popular freshmen reading. Shortly after, the books were quietly jettisoned from summer 2011 reading lists and invitations to speak were reconsidered.
So what did freshmen read instead? Based on an analysis of 245 programs, the NAS found the most frequently-selected book was the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (ethics in research) by Rebecca Skloot. Other popular books that year included This I Believe, Zeitoun, The Other Wes Moore, and Outcasts United.
While following some of the same themes, this year’s reading selections are a bit more eclectic:
- Brown University: Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press
- Bucknell University: Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers
- Clemson University: The Iguana Tree by Michael Stone
- Columbia University: The Illiad by Homer
- Cornell University: The Life Before Us by Romain Gary
- Dartmouth College: Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake
- North Carolina State University: It Happened on the Way to War by Rye Barcott
- Princeton University: The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by Kwame Anthony Appiah
- Purdue University: No Impact Man by Colin Beavan
- Smith College: My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayer
- Tulane University: The New Jim Crow by Elizabeth Alexander
- UNC-Chapel Hill: Home by Toni Morrison
- University of Wisconsin: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
And many local colleges and universities are incorporating summer reading into their 2013 freshman orientation activities.
For example, students at the University of Richmond will read The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman, while Georgetown University’s summer reading program will feature Vaddey Ratner and her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan. And for the second consecutive year, Longwood University will be reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
At American, freshmen will read Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays by Eula Biss. Not only will Biss will visit AU to discuss the book on September 3, but students will also have the opportunity to win $200 in an essay contest following the presentation.
Further to the east, freshmen at Salisbury University will read The Meaning of Matthew by Judy Shepard, who will speak about her experiences and participate in a book signing on August 22nd at Salisbury.
Established in 1998, Virginia Tech’s Common Book Project is designed to enrich the first-year experience and create “sense of community for undergraduate students.” This year, Tech students will be joining students at Elon, St. Cloud State, and Ball State universities in reading Little Princes by Conor Grennan.
Going in a slightly different direction, first year students at Virginia Commonwealth University have been assigned Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss.
At the University of Maryland, freshmen will read The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, and Goucher students will join freshmen at Duke in reading Let the Great World Spin, a radical social novel by Colum McCann.
George Washington University requires all incoming freshmen students to participate in a summer reading program, the book for which will be Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. Miami of Ohio University is assigning the same book to freshmen.
But it’s at Catholic University where the most innovative, multimedia summer reading program may be found.
Departing from traditional freshman assignments, Dr. Todd Lidh, director the CUA First Year Experience, devised In a Sense All things: A CUA Primer. In this web-based assignment book, he links a wide range of authors, genres, time, periods, and media summarizing the questions, themes, and ideas with which students will be presented in freshman classes.
It’s a truly innovative summer-long project designed to provide students with an entertaining introduction to college in general and CUA in specific.