Common Reading Programs in Higher Education
a Patricia Lindell Scholarship research project
By Andi Twiton
The Reading-in-Common program here at Gustavus Adolphus College is entering its eighth year. Ever since the year 2000, incoming first-year students and their “Gustie Greeters” have been asked to read and discuss a common book as part of the college’s orientation experience. The book is selected the year before by a committee made up of faculty, staff, and students. The book is then read during the summer, discussed during first-year orientation, and, finally, students are given the opportunity to meet the author of the book part way into the fall semester. The program is quite successful and, generally, well-liked.
Similar “one book, one campus” community reading events are held on campuses across the country, and yet very little research has been done on them. What are these programs like? What are they trying to accomplish? Are they succeeding? This report is the first phase of work being done at Gustavus to investigate such questions. This report seeks to provide some insight into the nature and impact of common reading programs in higher education.
Researching Common Reading Programs
A number of tools and approaches were used to think about and investigate these programs. The two primary investigations for this study were a literature review and an online survey. The literature used for the review was collected using internet search tools, suggestions from knowledgeable friends, and from the bibliographies of papers on related topics. It might be important to note that not all of the literature consulted centers on common reading programs on college campuses specifically. Some of the resources focus on similar cultural phenomena, such as book clubs, reader’s guides, and the “Oprahfication” of literature. The connections and similarities may suggest that common reading programs are part of larger cultural movements and debates. It is one goal of this report to advance this suggestion.
The online survey was created using SurveyMonkey.com and was sent out to relevant lists and discussion boards. The survey was meant to gather information about the logistics, purposes, and outcomes of these programs. The full set of survey questions is attached as an appendix to this report. One admitted limitation of the survey is that there was nothing to prevent multiple responses from any one institution. This may make the quantifiable percentages a little less reliable, but provides for a wider sampling of opinions on some of the more open questions. We sought the opinions of administrators, faculty, staff, librarians and others and it is possible that we received a few different points of view on the same program. It was our hope that we would get a variety of respondents and perspectives.
For a few programs we sent out a more in-depth interview, which is also included as an appendix. These programs were chosen for their uniqueness and/or success. The object was to get at a few areas that the survey could not.
Review of Literature
The amount of work done specifically on common reading programs in higher education remains small. However, there are a couple that were important to the current study. The National Resource Center for the First Year Experience and Students in Transition recently published a monograph by Jodi Levine Laufgraben entitled Common Reading Programs: Going Beyond the Book. This monograph is a valuable resource for colleges looking to begin, improve, or assess the program on their campus. Another helpful article came from Michael Ferguson, the associate editor of Peer Review. Ferguson wrote an article in the Summer 2006 edition called “Creating Common Ground: Common Reading and the First Year of College.” This article, like this project, explores the goals and outcomes of these programs.
The current study is informed by these two works, but differs in approach and focus. While Laufgraben provides a thorough how-to for these programs, this project seeks to look more at the nature and implications of these programs. Laufgraben does this too, but this study strives to go deeper in this respect. Likewise, Ferguson deals with similar issues and topics, but differs in approach. While Ferguson used college websites to gather his information, we decided to use an online survey of those involved in the programs. This project seeks to add to works such as these and contribute a new collection of information on this topic.
Beyond these two articles centered only on programs in higher education, there are a number of articles and books focused on similar, possibly related, events and issues. A third article that addresses college programs specifically also happens to suggest an intriguing correlation between such programs and other related cultural phenomena. Thomas Bartlett’s article, “Honors Curriculum at UMass Features Oprah-Like Book Club,” purports that the reading-in-common program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst treats and uses literature in ways similar to the Oprah Book Club. To make this claim is to suggest some new implications, which may be important to explore. Thinking about social book clubs, reader’s group guides in the back of classic novels, and Oprah may contribute to a better understanding of college reading-in-common programs.
There are a number of articles written about Oprah Winfrey and her book club. R. Mark Hall, for example, wrote an article for College English entitled “The ‘Oprahfication’ of Literacy: Reading ‘Oprah’s Book Club’.” This “Oprahfication” is the topic of many other articles with views both positive and negative concerning the effects of this movement. See the Works Cited page for more information on this ongoing discussion. One article that demonstrates the debate surrounding the use of books is “Deconstruct This… Jonathan Franzen and Oprah” from the Chronicle of Higher Education. This piece is about Franzen’s refusal to let Oprah use his book for her book club.
There are also several articles and books about social book clubs and community reading-in-common programs. Mary Cregan provides some excellent support for reading groups in her article “Reading Groups are Bridging Academic and Popular Culture.” DeNel Rehberb Sedo is another important voice in this discussion. She has written a few articles in and around the topic of reader’s groups. Others, like Jane Missner Barstow and Elizabeth Long, have argued that there are gender issues to be dealt with in the “Book Club” discussion.
The meaning of all of these works for reading-in-common programs goes beyond the scope of this report, but I note them here to suggest there is room and need for further thought.
Online Survey Results
The level of response for our online survey was wonderful. In the end there were 130 respondents total. The full results for the survey are included as an appendix to this report. I would like to highlight a few trends and issues that emerged in my reading of the results. More analysis will be offered in future phases of this project.
The responses from the survey revealed some strong trends as well as some profound differences in what might be called the “typical” common reading program. For one thing, most of the respondents reported that their programs were young, successful, and, generally, seen in a positive light. Many respondents (61.2%) are involved in programs as recent as four years old or less with only 18.6% of respondents stating their program was over seven years old. Also, 28.4% of those who took the survey thought their program was largely successful, while only one respondent ranking their program as largely unsuccessful. Finally, the perceived attitudes of students, faculty, librarians, student affairs staff, and higher administration members were thought to be mostly positive. These programs seem to be off to a good start.
The people involved in the logistics of these programs appear to vary a little bit more. Academic Affairs seems to be the usual administrative base for the program, but almost an equal amount of respondents picked the “other” category for an administrative base. The book selection process also has a few trends, but remains diverse. Faculty seem to usually be involved, but many institutions also include students, librarians, students affairs staff, academic affairs staff, and others. Likewise, book discussions are led by a variety of people from a variety of places from around the institution.
The participants of these programs appear to be quite similar throughout with 93.1% of the survey-takers replying that first-year students are the primary participants.
Goals and Aims
Over 80 % of respondents listed “to model intellectual engagement” and “to develop a sense of community” as main goals for their programs. “To encourage reading,” “to provide students an opportunity to understand diverse perspectives,” and “to add an academic component to new student orientation” were other common replies.
These goals seem to be reflected in the book selection criteria. Many of the participants in the survey listed the book’s ability to “stir” discussion as a priority in the book selection process. Other concerns were student enjoyment and the book’s ability to raise questions of meaning and value. Interestingly enough, only 28 out of 126 listed that it was extremely important that the book be “intellectually challenging;” 61 participants listed it as “important.”
Benefits and Challenges
The survey ended with two open-ended questions: “what are the greatest strengths of your common reading program” and “what are the greatest challenges.” Though, naturally, there are no statistics for these responses, a few patterns came to light.
The strengths listed seem to indicate that many schools are achieving theirs goals and that they feel these goals are quite worthwhile. Many of the strengths listed are similar to the goals stated. Several listed the “community” and “common ground” created by the program as a strength. Others listed student and faculty interaction and inter-campus cooperation as part of the community building that occurs. “Academic” and “intellectual” activity were often cited in partnership with the student-faculty interaction. Others cited specific events such as an author’s visit as a strength of their program.
Many of the challenges listed were the corollaries of a lack in the aforementioned strengths. Similar words, phrases, and issues appeared in the responses to both of these questions. Faculty participation and “ownership,” for example, were common responses under both strengths and challenges. In other words, a strong program will have high faculty involvement and interest and any program that does not will find difficulty. What emerges from much of the discussion of strengths and weaknesses is a veritable list of “must-haves” for a strong program. Without high student and faculty participation and commitment, the goals of community-building and intellectual stimulation will be hard to achieve. Other challenges mentioned were funding, getting students to read the book, and the ever-difficult book selection process.
The Reading-in-Common program at Gustavus is one that I have personally experienced and benefited from. I remember reading When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka in the months before I came to college. I remember discussing the book with my Gustie Greeter group and I even managed to make it to the author’s speaking event. Overall, a pretty special opportunity to read a good book, think about it with new friends, and meet a working, living author.
I hope this report has convinced you that there is more thinking to be done concerning common reading programs. These programs seem to have a lot to offer college students and I am guessing there is still room to grow.
Barron, Dennis. “I Teach English – and I Hate Reader’s Guides,” Chronicle of Higher Education 49, no. 6 (2002): B5.
Barstow, Jane Missner. “Reading in Groups: Women’s Clubs and College Literature Classes.” Publishing Research Quarterly (Winter 2003): 3-17.
Bartlett, Thomas. “Honors Curriculum at UMass Features Oprah-Like Book Club.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 49.25 (28 Feb. 2003): A10.
Cregan, Mary. “Reading Groups Are Bridging Academic and Popular Culture.” Chronicle of Higher Education (19 December 1997): B4-5.
“Deconstruct This… Jonathan Franzen and Oprah.” Chronicle of Higher Education 30 Nov. 2001: B4.
Ferguson, Michael. “Creating Common Ground: Common Reading and the First Year of College.” Peer Review (Summer 2006): 8-10.
Hall, R. Mark. “The ‘Oprahfication’ of Literacy: Reading ‘Oprah’s Book Club’.” College English 65, no. 6 (July 2003): 646-667.
Laufgraben, J.L. Common Reading Programs: Going Beyond the Book (Monograph No. 44). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 2006.
Long, Elizabeth. Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 2003)
Sedo, DeNel Rehberg. “Predictions of Life After Oprah: A Glimpse at the Power of Book Club Readers.” Publishing Research Quarterly (Fall 2002): 11-22.
________. “Readers in Reading Groups: An Online Survey of Face-to-Face and Virtual Book Clubs.” Convergence 9, no. 1 (2003): 66-90.
Striphas, Ted. “A Dilectic With the Everyday: Communication and Cultural Politics on Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 20, no. 3 (2003): 295-316.
A. Summary of survey results
B. In-Depth Interview Questions
If you were involved in the start up of your program, or if you know its history, can you describe what led to its being adopted on your campus? What constituents were most interested in getting a common reading program started? What obstacles have you encountered?
If you typically host an author event, why do you feel it’s valuable? What kinds of activities is the author typically involved in?
If developing a sense of community is a goal of the program, in what ways do you feel this program succeeds or fails?
How do students respond to the common reading program? Which students are the primary audience for the program? What percent of those students read the book? Participate in programs? What are the benefits for students generally?
How do faculty on your campus respond to the program? How many faculty typically read the book? Participate in events? Use the book in their courses? If faculty have been supportive of the program, what do they find valuable about it? If faculty have been critical of the program, what kinds of issues do they raise?
Have there ever been controversies about the chosen book? What was the nature of the controversy?
Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library
Gustavus Adolphus College
last updated 4/07