MLA Panelists Analyze Beach Books

Ashley Thorne

In the last session of the last day of this year’s four-day MLA (Modern Language Association) convention, a remnant gathered for a final discussion. January in Seattle proved an apt place to contemplate Beach Books.

Dale Larson, retired professor of philosophy and English at Grays Harbor College, moderated a panel he had convened to talk about the growing popularity among American colleges and universities of assigning students a “common book.” These readings are sometimes mandatory, sometimes optional, and are often treated as inspiring a theme for the academic community in a particular year.

Larson asked his four panelists to consider (1) What prompts this trend? and (2) What stake do our rhetorical-literary disciplines have in its success?” He used as a resource NAS’s 2010 and 2011 studies “Beach Books: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?”

Our studies track the titles and themes of books assigned as common reading in higher education, as well as the kind of institutions that offer common reading programs. We observe that such programs provide an excellent opportunity for colleges to introduce new students to college-level reading and to give them a shared intellectual foundation, especially in light of the diversity of contemporary high school curricula and the shift away from college core curricula. Unfortunately colleges tend to aim low in their selections, often choosing easy, recent, books, and frequently choosing books with ideological agendas.

The first speaker on the panel was K.J. Peters, professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. He gave a broad introduction to the subject, from the history of the common reading trend to the rise of a common reading industry of sorts, revolving around “speakers bureaus, publishers and higher education.” He also spoke about the potential threat to academic freedom that arises when college administrations ask freshman composition teachers to use the “common book” in their courses.

Harvey Michael Teres, associate professor of English at Syracuse University, asserted that common reading programs help bridge the gap between the literary world and the public, noting the popularity of city-based “One Book” initiatives.

Two other panelists spoke about themes regularly associated with common reading assignments: sustainability and service learning. Peter Michael Huk, a lecturer in writing at the University of California at Santa Barbara, argued that a college’s good intentions in trying to make students more sensitive to issues such as “sustainability” are useless if students “are not encouraged to question [assigned readings].” Huk’s abstract says that in such cases, “students are apt to...regurgitate empty ideas in writing.”

Samantha Riley, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, talked about how “interdisciplinary students learn to write much more efficiently and in scholarly ways.”

It is good to see people at the MLA paying critical attention both to common reading programs and popular campus themes such as sustainability and service learning. And that this attention comes with a concern for improving the quality of students’ reading and writing is also heartening. It’s worth asking what role common reading assignments have to play in the education of college students, and how higher education institutions can make the most of this opportunity.

That’s where NAS wants to help colleges and universities. Our reports include practical and imaginative recommendations for those who orchestrate common reading programs:

To choose better books, we recommend that colleges:

1. Choose books that challenge students intellectually.
2. Pay deliberate attention to important books from earlier eras.
3. Choose the chooser(s) wisely. Consult those who read widely and well and who are intimately acquainted with good books.
4. Consult outside sources, such as the National Association of Scholars’ list (See Appendix G: Recommended Books for College Common Reading, page 77) or the National Endowment for the Arts program The Big Read.
5. Ask alumni, “Which book that you read in college influenced you the most?” and consider their answers as candidates for common reading.
6. Break bad habits. Choosing books that cheerlead for popular causes or reinforce a political sensibility is a bad habit.
7. Mix it up. Alienation and oppression are important themes but so are courage, fidelity, redemption, self-sacrifice, fellowship, and truth, among others.

To make the most of the common reading experience, we recommend that

8. Make reading the book mandatory, and enforce the assignment with a test.
9. Require that students submit a list of new words they learn from the book.
10. Stage dramatic readings of the book by professors who can do voices.
11. Bring in an impersonator or an expert on the writings of a deceased author to speak and answer questions.

#3 may speak to some of K.J. Peters’ concerns about administrators bypassing faculty members in choosing books and dictating how they are to be used. Perhaps Peters and the other panelists have additional suggestions they would append to this set. The more good ideas, the better.

We also provided a list of books to consider choosing for common reading. Each recommended book comes with a set of reasons as to why it would be a suitable choice.

While we invite colleges to tap into these resources, we hope they will become more and more creative when planning their common readings, looking beyond trendy topics and politically correct perspectives and seeking to instill in students a taste for what is more challenging and timeless. Colleges would do well to use this kind of initiative to help students become better readers, for, as I have written before, students’ college careers will be defined largely by how skilled they are at reading books.

Perhaps the MLA panel’s consideration of this topic, as well as Inside Higher Ed’s journalistic coverage of it, will lead other academics to focus more closely on what has so far been largely a gimmick. NAS will be here to provide data and a broad look at the accompanying patterns, and we would be pleased to work with others who are interested in this phenomenon.

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