Reading Ahead


Freshmen arriving at the University of Pennsylvania in a few weeks won’t know much about their new classmates. Chad from New Canaan can’t be sure his lacrosse exploits will pique the coeds’

Janie from Reseda isn’t certain her roommate will “get” the dumpster chic look she’s appropriated from the Olsen twins. These starry-eyed newcomers will, however, know that nearly every one of their number has read a dusty memoir several hundred years old that recommends they “rarely use venery but for health or offspring.”

Summer reading, once the bane of high school, has in recent years begun to pop up at the college level. Though programs vary among universities, the most common involves one title being assigned to all freshmen, who then discuss it in small groups upon their arrival.

The college summer read tends to be challenging but not overtly controversial, smart but not wonkishly academic. Several categories have emerged to satisfy those criteria: There’s the Still Relevant Classic (
Antigone), Cool Classic (Frankenstein, anything by Kafka), Identity Political (Life on the Color Line, Things Fall Apart), and the Actually Worthwhile Bestseller (The Tipping Point).

At some colleges, the summer reading book is included in students’ upcoming courses. Syracuse faculty are elliptically “encouraged to incorporate discussion of the book in various ways into their classes,” says the university’s Ruth Stein. Columbia does not assign a summer reading book, but sends a copy of
The Iliad to its new students, who all read it as the first book in the school’s famous Core Curriculum.

But what’s more intriguing about the trend is also what’s more common: The book is part of orientation alone, selected by a cross-department panel rather than scholars in the field, and plays no part in the coursework to follow. This suggests that the movement is rooted more in a desire to foster community than to fulfill certain academic goals, distinguishing it from high school programs that seem to fear students will regress in three months away from the classroom. It also underscores universities’ increased involvement in their students’ social growth.

At Penn, for example, the Penn Reading Project (which has the class of ’09 reading Benjamin Franklin’s
Autobiography) was founded in 1991 to address the concern that orientation week provided no chance to “meet in small groups with faculty,” says its director, David Fox. The “PRP” book is the subject of a lecture and discussions among small groups but does not make it onto classroom syllabi. Cornell started a similar program five years ago, orientation director Lisa K’Bedford relates; not coincidentally, the school began housing all freshmen together that same year. At both schools, the summer reading assignment is essentially socio-academic: Colleges want to create, in Fox’s words, a “shared intellectual experience,” to frame the social with an academic bent.

Several key factors may explain why universities have begun taking a more active role in the social side of studies. As the modern liberal arts experience has increasingly come to be treated as just that—an “experience,” with heavy emphasis on the individual—and as many schools have made a shift away from “core”-heavy curricula, universities seem keen on establishing common academic forums. Thus a school such as Columbia doesn’t bother with summer reading: It expects students to engage in such a dialogue throughout their four years. And at a place like Penn, where the traditional “freshman comp” requirement has been outsourced into various “writing intensive” courses, the PRP represents one of the few chances to offer a truly standard experience.

The books being chosen also underline the fact that many schools are less concerned with introducing specific academic ideas than with catalyzing intellectual debate. Fox notes that a certain “literary” level is required of any selection, but these books aren’t intended to be critiqued as they would in a lit class. This is about universal application, not close reading.

Not that it should be anything but. Consider this type of program as a sort of an advertisement for how the social and intellectual can be integrated in the college setting. By taking a trial run through the process, students ideally see the old high
school wall between work and play begin to crumble. Whether they remember their summer read is another story. Certainly, Penn would be naive to think its freshmen will pay much heed to a book that advises, “Eat not to dulness. Drink not to elevation.”