It’s summertime again, and once again I am not participating in the Summer Reading Program. I did once in the past, and it was actually an enjoyable (although ultimately frustrated) experience. However, in the subsequent three years, I have thought about it and then opted out. Why? I do think the idea is sound – find a book that faculty, staff and incoming students can read in common and use it as the basis for building academic community. Alas, in my experience, that is not what happens. There are at least two underlying flaws in the common approach used, one which has been commented on extensively, the other one less so.

  1. Choice of Book. The National Association of Scholars, an organization with which I have many differences, releases a report every year entitled Beach Books: What do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside of Class?. Their major thesis, with which I disagree, is that the choices made are based not on quality or literary merit, but rather on political and social content. Quite honestly, that doesn’t bother me – indeed as a scientist who thinks a lot about the societal impact of science, the fact that Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the most commonly selected book in 2011. The NAS report rather contemptuously dismisses the book in stating that “Readers will come
    away from the book having learned new things, but the writing itself is journalistic,
    not intellectual.” I take issue with that statement; to the contrary I think the book raises profound questions that could be used to provoke discussions across many disciplines – biology, political science, sociology, history, and on and on.

    But setting aside the political agenda inherent in the report, there are two features of the report worthy of note. First, it makes the point that there is a bias towards recently published work, often (as is the case at Miami University) that the expectation is that the author will speak at Freshman Convocation. So much for Mark Twain. But most importantly, the NAS did their homework and reported the data – what books were used at a total of 245 colleges and universities in 2011. They break them out in a number of ways (some of them based on political content and thus of questionable objective significance), but the most interesting is their summary of most commonly used books – I’ve extracted it here. I leave the reader to judge this list, but I’ll state my conclusion succinctly – other than Skloot’s book, there is only one that I have read or will read on my own (The Help), and while that is a fine book, it hardly ranks with the great literature of the world. And note also – despite the explosion in high quality science writing of the past few years, that genre is noticeable by its near complete absence (my sophomore students in Evolution loved Neil Shubin’s My Inner Fish, as well as other books on a list I compiled, but these are nowhere to be seen).

    The NAS also provides its own list of recommended books. I’ve extracted both their criteria for making the recommendations, as well as the list that resulted here. I think you’ll find the contrast obvious – I certainly did. And in the interest of providing data (albeit somewhat subjective), I have read (and benefited from) 15 of the 46 recommended books, and I feel guilty about not having read many of the others. And some institutions do buck the trends – Cornell’s program has included such titles as The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Antigone, and Frankenstein (although recent selections may be regressing towards the mean),

    There are other problems in the selection process, one of which is, in my view an excessive concern that the reading will be “too hard”, either for students or (unbelievably) for faculty. I witnessed this first hand at Miami; when in 2008 we used James Bennett’s Beyond UFO’s, an outstanding popular introduction to the astronomy of the solar system, a commonly heard criticism was that it was “too hard”, and that it “contained too much science”. The critics apparently had their impact; the next year the book was Taylor Mali’s What Learning Leaves, a 75 page collection of entertaining but (in my view) rather superficial “slam” poems loosely related to “education”. The book could easily be read in less than an hour, and students had the opportunity not to read it at all, but rather to watch the admittedly highly entertaining Mr. Mali perform them on YouTube.

    So the bottom line on the selection question? Too focused on the recent, a tendency towards the superficial, and lacking in scientific content.

  2. How the books are used Then there is the question as to what is done with the book. At Miami (and at many places), the author speaks, the students break out into faculty-led discussions, and that is basically the end of it. There is no ongoing curricular component associated with it, and there is a complete lack of any sort of assessment of what the students gained from the experience. Indeed, the one time I facilitated a section, when we asked how many had even read the book, about two hands (out of 20) went up. When we asked about reading at least a chapter, a few more did, but one young man asked if reading part of a chapter counted! But of course, that was that science book, which was “too hard”, even for faculty.

    So how do we deal with this? We know that students resist reading, but is that a reason to make it easier for them? I don’t think so; rather, I’d suggest go to the effort to truly incorporate it into our first year programs, and that there be real negative consequences (like grades of F) for students who chose not to make the required effort. I was pleased to discover, by way of a manuscript I reviewed (quite favorably, I would add) that this is what happens at Beloit College. In the fall of 2011, the College used Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, a history of the 19th century cholera epidemic in London and its role (via the identification of the source on infection as the Broad Street Pump). John Jungck then incorporated it into his mathematics class; his paper describing how he did so can be accessed here. After I reviewed the paper, I read the book and was thrilled by it; on reflection, however, I did not nominate it for use at Miami, in that it was clear to me that given the superficial nature of our program, we could not possibly do it justice. More on the Beloit First Year Initiative is here.

So, if I were to sum up the current state of these programs, I would do so with two words – “wasted opportunity”. By focusing on recent work by living authors, we deprive ourselves of most of the rich canon of world literature. By catering to student’s aversion to reading, we trivialize the process. And by minimizing science in these programs, not only do we do an injustice to the field, but we perpetuate the stereotype of science, for both students and faculty, as that hard stuff that only weirdos care about. Taken together, it means that I will continue to find alternative ways to occupy my summer months.

Have others had different experiences with these programs? If so, feel free to comment. However, I fear that if the trends continue, these programs will do little to enhance students’ academic experiences and will continue to provide fuel to those who (mistakenly, I submit) decry the “liberal bias” and “political correctness” they see as pervasive in American higher education.