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.