The End of Summer Reading?

Over the last decade, freshman reading programs at North Carolina college have been, variously, controversial, touchy-feely, and arguably too easy. Now, they seem to be dying off. Four North Carolina colleges have dropped their programs outright, and several more have scaled them down considerably.

The idea of a “common reading program” has been around for several decades. It grew in popularity along with the “First Year Experience” movement that began in 1982. This was an effort to boost retention and graduate rates through special programs for freshmen. One administrator told me there was another wave of enthusiasm for common reading programs seven or eight years ago. (Here’s a list of Pope Center articles on summer reading over the years.)

Certainly, freshman reading is widespread. One measure of the programs’ popularity is that publishers target the programs to sell their books, says John Gardner, founder of the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for the First Year Experience (NRC), a long-time promoter of common reading programs. In an email to the Pope Center, he wrote: “There has been an explosion of this effort by publishers. They even send authors of some of their books to conferences for first-year educators to hype their books.”

But the programs have not always been popular. Indeed, they have sometimes sparked public outrage.

In 2002, UNC-Chapel Hill asked students to read Approaching the Qur’an by Michael Sells. Less than a year after the 9/11 attacks, the choice led to anger around the country. The Family Policy Network sued on the grounds that it was so pro-Islam that it constituted proselytizing, and state legislators threatened to remove funding for the program. (Under pressure, UNC decided to make the assignment non-mandatory.)

More recently, others, such as the Pope Center’s Jenna Ashley Robinson and former intern Will Jakes, have criticized the books for being too easy or too left-leaning.

The rationale for the reading programs is twofold. On the one hand, such programs are supposed to introduce students to higher education—to “raise their expectations about the extent and kind of academic work that would be expected of them,” in the words of John Gardner. (Certain summer reading books, such as The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, the one I had to read for UNC-Chapel Hill, make you wonder whether academic rigor was really a priority for selection committees.)

Additionally, making everyone read the same book should help build class unity by giving students a shared experience and a conversation starter. Ideally, said Gardner, it would “bring together entering students with outstanding upper class students, faculty, librarians, and other staff in a process that would build community with new students.”

But not all colleges now think summer reading programs are fulfilling those goals. This year, four of the colleges that the Pope Center contacted—UNC-Asheville, Lenoir-Rhyne University, Guilford College, and Mars Hill College—dropped summer reading programs. Several others have scaled back the program, either assigning a magazine article or offering mere suggestions for books to read.

I asked administrators at Mars Hill University and Guilford College why they dropped the program.

“One of the reasons we got rid of [the summer reading program] was that we realized we didn’t have clearly articulated goals,” said Jason Pierce, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Mars Hill. The school’s leaders had an idea of what the program was supposed to accomplish, and when they looked more closely, it didn’t seem to be fulfilling those goals. “We found that there was no evidence that we had achieved any of the [goals] we had agreed on to begin with,” Pierce said.

For example, one goal was increased community among students. Having all read the same book, they would have a shared experience, have something to talk about with peers, and feel more connected to the school. “We found that [the summer reading program] didn’t help to bridge any of those gaps,” Pierce said. “They weren’t having those conversations outside of class.”  Many of the students—especially those who might have most benefited from it, Pierce said—didn’t even read the book.

Pierce said that most of Mars Hill’s last few books dealt with encounters between Islam and the West. He maintains that the intent was good—students should think about how they would relate to “the other”—but many people were tired of the theme.

Guilford College didn’t notice any “great gains” from the program, either, according to dean of students Aaron Fetrow. More than that, students and faculty voiced annoyance at having to deal with it. Guilford College requires students to take a discipline-specific first-year-experience class, and the professors who teach those classes did not enjoy taking the time to teach the summer reading book. Students, for their part, said it reminded them of assignments they had had in high school and felt that they were beyond such things.

Colleges outside of North Carolina appear to be taking a step back, too. Mars Hill’s Pierce mentioned that, at a meeting during the Appalachian College Association Summit last October, it quickly became clear that other leaders were having second thoughts about the whole program. After the summit, Pierce reviewed available research on the programs, and found that the research “was almost all anecdotal…. There was no evidence that they had served any clear purposes.” That review led to Mars Hill’s decision to scrap the program.

So, it looks as though summer reading programs are a passing fad. In my view, good riddance. Of course, they are still alive at a number of schools. Of those that remain, below is a list of the books (or, in one case, magazine article) that North Carolina colleges assigned students to read.

The second section of the list, just for fun, includes those books that have been promoted on Oprah Winfrey’s website (representing more than half of the schools). Does that say anything about them? You be the judge.

  • Davidson College: The Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White. A man “discovers the secret to happiness” in an American leper colony.
  • East Carolina University: It Happened on the Way to War by Rye Barcott. Before joining the military, Rye Barcott started a non-profit organization dedicated to improving health care in a Kenyan slum.
  • NC A&T State University: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss. Moss tells the story of the rise of the processed food industry.
  • NC State University: The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager. Two bright but very flawed German scientists found a new way to make fertilizer—the Haber-Bosch process—saving millions of lives.
  • Queens University of Charlotte: Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. Children on a war-torn Pacific island find solace in a Dickens novel.
  • UNC-Charlotte: Wine to Water by Doc Hendley. A small-town bartender started a non-profit to bring clean water to the world’s poor.
  • Wake Forest University: No single book is assigned, just some suggestions including Andrew Delbanco’s book on the meaning of college. 

Summer Reading Books Promoted by Oprah Winfrey:

  • Appalachian State University: American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar. This is a novel about growing up Muslim in America.
  • Barton College: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Plane-wrecked WWII airman Louis Zamperini battled sharks, thirst, and more to make it home.
  • Duke University: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. McCann gives a novel-sized snapshot of life and lust in New York City amid a tight-rope stunt in 1974.
  • Elon University: Little Princes by Conor Grennan. Princes is the story of one man’s battle to save “the lost children of Nepal.”
  • Fayetteville State and UNC Greensboro: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This book gives the personal and family background of Henrietta Lacks, a deceased woman whose cancerous cells are still used in biological experiments all over the world.
  • Salem College: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. Twelve tells the story of Hattie Shepherd, a poor black woman who left Georgia for Pennsylvania in the 1920s, and her descendants.
  • UNC-Chapel Hill: Home by Toni Morrison. A veteran finds meaning when he returns home to find his little sister is in danger.
  • UNC-Wilmington: The Wave by Susan Casey. Casey follows surfers and scientists looking for the biggest waves on the planet.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the “first-year experience” movement began in the 1990’s. It actually began in 1982, launched by professor John Gardner.