There's a committee that gets together every year. The English professors can submit suggestions to this committee about what the book ought to be. The committee looks at the suggestions, and then chooses a single book for all the Comp II students to read.
The criteria for choosing that book are a bit murky to me, since I've never been on the committee (and no, I'm not asking to be put on it, please no, I'm sufficiently committeed up at the moment) but from what I can tell these criteria are a few:
- The book needs to be fairly contemporary
- The book can't be too controversial (no gayness, no commies, no socialism, no atheism, etc)
- The writer of the book must still be alive (because we want to bring the author to campus if we can)
- The book must be "teachable" in some way -- this is sort of hard to define, but it's got to have a kind of first-year hook to it, if you see what I mean: it's got to be about something fairly easy to explain to your average first-year student: The Holocaust, autistic people, Vietnam war veterans, whatever
- The book can't be very long
- The book can't be very expensive
- The book can't be hard to read
Now there are arguments for this program, which I certainly understand. It creates a community out of the students. It allows the university to have a program which all the students can attend, and then talk about together. We can work together as a university community to foster intellectual discussions, and all of that.
It's a good theory. In practice -- in fact -- I've been less happy with how it's playing out. This may just be because I haven't much liked the texts that our committee has chosen over the past several years -- not necessarily because they're bad texts. It's most been that they're books that are, for one reason or another, a bad fit for me*. The Holocaust text, The Sunflower, for instance, is just not a text I would ever be able to teach, ever.
But in practice, it seems to me that there's a real problem with choosing a book by committee, and imposing it on a community of teachers, whatever your motivations, and however valid your aims. I think you're often going to end up with a weak text: one that's not very long, not very deep, and -- because it can't be controversial -- the intellectual equivalent of sappy.
How's it working at your universities? Do you have programs like these? What do you think of them?
*And there is an option, at our university, for individual professors to opt out. That is, we don't have to teach the texts in our comp classes if we don't want to. By "we," of course, I mean full-time professors, not adjuncts. Adjuncts are required to use the text.