As new freshmen take advantage of summer vacation, many will also open open books that their institutions have asked them to read before classes start. Summer reading assignments, known as common books, differ at each institution, but are all meant to stimulate discussion about current events when students arrive on campus.
This year, as in recent years, many institutions are choosing books that address issues of social justice, especially racial inequality. At Siena College in New York, freshmen must read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boysa novel based on the true story of abuse at the Dozier School for Boys in Jim Crow, Florida.
Michelle Liptak, a first-year seminary professor at Siena, said the faculty committee chose the book in 2020 for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years.
“We’re very committed to choosing text that addresses current issues,” Liptak said. “And so, given what was going on, particularly with regard to the Black Lives Matter movement, we wanted to choose a book that was about injustice and race. We narrowed it down to five tracks, and The Nickel Boys was one of them.
The 925 members of the new freshman class will discuss the book in their freshman seminars and, depending on the professor, write an essay or take a quiz about the text.
The college also plans to bring in Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at the University of South Florida, to discuss her work examining the unidentified bodies of boys who attended Dozier School and went missing, said Britt Haas, another professor who leads a year-long first seminar. The faculty members who teach the book all try to make it relevant to today’s world, she said, although they approach it in different ways.
“The common thing is that’s the basis of the discussion,” Haas said. “It varies hugely, not just the assignment, but even the conversations we have in class. They’re all certainly about issues of racial justice – how far we’ve come and how far we need to go in terms of balancing racial justice. But all teachers do different things with the book.
At Goucher College in Maryland, students must read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells became, without her knowledge or permission, the source of the first human cell line to be bred indefinitely for use in medical research.
Isabel Moreno-López, associate provost for undergraduate studies, said summer reading is the first component of each student’s four-year exploration of race, power and perspective, a key part of the Goucher’s basic program. Although the college typically chooses a social justice-related book for its 300 freshmen, this year’s selection is unusual because it crosses so many disciplines, she said.
“Usually books that deal with social justice, race and power fall under the humanities,” Moreno-López said. “But it’s a book that can be studied in the natural sciences, because it’s about medicine. At Goucher, we support this reading requirement across all divisions, and this book is ideal for that.
Moreno-López said the book should spark conversations about ethics in medicine, since Lacks cells have been used for cancer research without his consent, as well as racism in medicine and medical research. The fact that Skloot is white could also lead to a discussion about the imbalance between the number of white and black authors represented in the publishing industry, Moreno-López said.
All first-year students will attend a group discussion about the book at the start of the fall semester, which aims to start conversations about the book throughout the term. If the students aren’t participating in the group discussion, Moreno-López said, she’ll seek them out for a one-on-one conversation about the text. Students are also required to write an essay and upload it online for their freshman seminars.
At Seton Hall University in New Jersey, freshmen will be required to read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. The book chronicles the founding of Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law firm in Montgomery, Alabama, and the case of one of its first clients: Walter McMillian, a young black man who was sentenced to wrongfully died for the murder of a young white woman whom he did not kill.
“just mercy is a wonderful and timely choice, one that aligns with our mission and DEI goals and inspires young adults as they embark on their career paths,” said Nancy Enright, University Foundation Program Director. “The themes of justice, mercy, overcoming racial prejudice, community and faith in relation to social justice are closely linked to these similar themes which are an integral part of the core. Seton Hall University’s core curriculum is a general education approach that encourages students to become thoughtful, caring, communicative, and ethically responsible leaders with a commitment to service.
Kelly Shea, associate professor of English and director of the Seton Hall Writing Center, said just mercy was the clear summer reading pick for the second straight year. The book makes it easy for teachers to conduct group conversations, she said, and classes can also compare and contrast the book and the film, which was released in 2019.
About 1,500 freshmen will read the Seton Hall College Life Course Book, a one-credit seminar designed to help them acclimate to college life and connect with peers and members of the faculty. Additionally, Reverend Forrest Pritchett, Senior Provost Advisor on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, is organizing a trip for faculty, students, staff and alumni to visit the Equal Justice Initiative headquarters. from Stevenson to Montgomery.
Smith College in Massachusetts asks freshmen to read an offer from one of the colleges: The Book of Form and Void by Ruth Ozeki, former student and teacher of English language and literature. The novel is a coming-of-age story that focuses on grief and other topics, allowing teachers to lead discussions on consumerism, mental health, family dynamics, work stress, family chosen and more.
Jane Stangl, dean of the freshman class, said Smith chose the book because it resonated with the goals of the freshman experience.
Although Smith does not require students to read the summer book, he strongly encourages them to do so. The college’s freshmen number about 650, and Stangl estimates that about two-thirds of them will read Ozeki’s book. One obstacle could be the length of the book; at more than 550 pages, it is considerably longer than the previous year’s texts and could challenge students, Stangl noted.
“The book is a quality writing powerhouse,” Stangl said. “Yet we also want our students to read the book. In previous years, we’ve tended to steer clear of what might seem daunting, but the quality and intimacy of the writing is so digestible that we felt it was worth it.
Other institutions, including the University of California at Berkeley; Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania; Spelman College in Georgia; and Binghamton University in New York, do not require students to read a book during the summer, but they do recommend a book or a selection of books for new students.
Binghamton, part of the State University of New York system, suggests freshmen read Weapons of Mathematics Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neill. Kelli Smith, assistant vice president for student success, who oversees the university’s common reading experience, said this year’s book was selected for its focus on issues of race and inequality.
“The [book selection] The committee also felt that the book had the advantage of addressing issues of inequality more broadly than some of the other books reviewed this year,” Smith said.
Smith said Binghamton faculty will coordinate discussions among freshmen – who number more than 3,000 – during the first week of classes. The university also encourages all professors to incorporate the book into class discussions, she said.
Other summer book selections this year include:
- Cancer journals by Audre Lorde, assigned to the University of Moravia
- What I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, editing by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman, assigned to the University of Louisiana at Monroe
- Clara and the sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, assigned to New York University
- Junaluska: Oral Histories of a Black Appalachian Communityedited by Susan E. Keefe, assigned to Appalachian State University
- They called us enemies by George Takei, assigned to Bucknell University
- The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans, assigned to Saint Michael’s College
- Dig by AS King, assigned to SUNY Oswego