Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Common-reading grumpage

So, it's time again for the annual round of freshman common-reading grumpage over at InsideHigherEd. Depending on which of the comments you read, the common-reading selections at the vast majority of universities are too new! too liberal! too nonfictional! too lightweight! too depressing!

John Warner's comments in the thread at IHE nail a lot of the difficulties, complications, and uneasy compromises of choosing a common-reading book. (Actually, John Warner pretty much nails everything all of the time, and can we please just make him Secretary of Education already?) Since I seem to have become, much to my own dismay, chair of the subcommittee that is in charge of selecting our university's common reading, I'd like to underline his point that the book has to be acceptable to faculty from across the disciplines. This, by the way, includes faculty who aren't necessarily on board with the whole liberal arts enterprise in the first place. I'm talking about faculty who want to jettison the whole program so they can spend the entire freshman experience course going over the requirements for their particular pre-professional discipline. And faculty who complain that the last few years' offerings have been insufficiently uplifting, and can't we just do an inspirational self-help book instead? And faculty who are Very Very Concerned that the book should not depict white people in our state in a bad light. (N.B., if you're going to have a common reading book about the civil rights era -- and there were several good reasons why our selection this year really needed to be about the civil rights era -- it is going to depict white people in our state in a bad light. If you don't want posterity to judge you harshly, don't behave badly.) And faculty who think it is really too much to expect students to read a whole entire book. (Call me old-fashioned, but I think somebody really needs to tell the students who are unwilling to read books that their choices are a) to become willing to read books; or b) to choose a life-path that doesn't involve college.)

Sigh. If they would just make me dictator of everything, I'd totally pick a classic. Like Lysistrata. Or The Importance of Being Earnest. Or maybe Candide. All of which have the advantage of being fun and short. But if I did that, certain people from the Pre-Professional Discipline That Shall Not Be Named would totally flip out.

Did I mention, we've been asked to start thinking about next year's reading selection more or less immediately after school reconvenes this year? I can hardly wait.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I saw that article. Our freshmen are reading the same book as last year, Choosing Civility. But our seniors get a new book every bloody year, and it's usually something terrible. (Last year was an exception when we read EL Doctorow's [RIP] Ragtime.) Since I am going to be chair this year, I don't have to teach senior seminar, which means I don't have to read "the book." That's good. And bad. There's something lovely about bitching about "the book" with other people. I am a bitcher, as you already know.

Good luck choosing a new "the book." It's so hard. An unenviable task, to be sure. One suggestion? Avoid the new Harper Lee book...

Bardiac said...

Dare I ask what you folks chose?

We tried a "common book" across first year writing courses for a while, and it was painful deciding every year. I sympathize about your difficult task!

Fretful Porpentine said...

This year's selection is Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi, which I think is a very good choice, but I can already hear the complaints that it's too long! too hard to read! too full of negativity about white people / Mississippi / life in general! I have absolutely no idea what we're going to end up doing next year.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Fie, I'd never heard of Choosing Civility before, but it sounds dire, and exactly the sort of thing that a certain person on this committee would actually like. I hope she never finds out that it exists.

Weirdly enough, under ordinary circumstances I'm actually sympathetic to the complaints that required-reading lists tend to overplay the dark and pessimistic. I mean, I'm the person who fills up the second half of her Brit Lit survey with Austen and Wilde and skips Heart of Darkness. But for some reason, it absolutely sets my teeth on edge when people complain that the common reading book should be all sweetness and light.

Emily said...

I suspect that in most situations, it's a committee of faulty who don't teach literature -- at least it has been at the two SLACs that I've taught at. We use a common reader in our first year program, and while I'm on the committee for that program, we're not the ones to decide the book, but rather we make recommendations.

We tend to use the types of books outlined in that article -- but if I had my way, I'd really rather teach Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych, so we could talk about what's really important in life. But no one else shares my obsession with Russian literature, so standard first year readings are the way we go. The best I could do was to recommend Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower, which wound up being the committee's choice (the student on the committee far preferred it to the book about how drunk driving will change your life), so at least it's not all sweetness and light.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I shall be filing away The Sunflower as a possibility for next year!

delagar said...

We have this common reader obsession, but at least professors are allowed to opt out of it (something I have fought hard to keep as an option every single year, because I'm one of the professors who almost every year chooses to opt out, due to the dire books our committee keeps choosing).

I too keep trying to get our committee to choose classic lit -- we all get "encouraged" to make suggestions, which the committee then cheerfully ignores. Ivan Ilych -- My God, wouldn't that be wonderful to teach? And I suggested Christmas Carol one year, because I'd actually taught it the year before, and it teaches like a dream, plus just perfect for our current economic situation. And another year I suggested Utopia, which is short and who doesn't love teaching about utopian thinking?

But no! We must be sexy! And RELEVANT!

Which apparently means something written in the past ten years with a shiny cover, from what I can tell.