Saturday, October 10, 2015

What If We All Read The Same Book?

My university, like many universities, has a program wherein all the Comp II students (in theory, at least) read the same book.

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. 


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

We have a common text for senior seminar, which every major has to teach. The book has to meet a similar criteria as yours. Usually they are god awful. Once we used the novel Ragtime. That went well. The rest were bad.

There is also low buy-in from most majors. Liberal arts majors teach the book and take it seriously but often professional studies people don't even bother to teach it at all. It's embarrassing how much we have to justify the book to students when other majors are blowing it off. I hate that part of our gen ed curriculum because it doesn't seem to work the way it should.

I have no solution. If there were total buy in and a rigorous text, it might work. But if you make it an easy book, then you're basically saying seniors are not capable of doing sophisticated work.

I know this isn't the same as your program. Our freshmen have a common book too. That just started. But not sure how it's going. Pretty much liberal arts profs teach the freshman experience class so maybe there's better buy in. Not sure.

delagar said...

The buy-in has been pretty high at our university, so far as I'm able to tell. *I* haven't used the book, except once. But I think most of the other professors are using it.

I think maybe if there were more range? If, say, there were two or three *possible* common texts, and we could choose from among those, that might work?

Of course, that would defeat the purpose of creating a shared common text that *everyone* is reading.

I'm not entirely convinced that I see the need to create that community, though.

Bardiac said...

We tried something like this, but just in composition courses, and just for those who chose. And it was a pain in the rear and the choices tended to be not great (with one or two exceptions). And they didn't seem at all successful in fostering that lively conversation we all fantasize about.

I think that we at least let anyone who wanted to be on the committee to choose, and that committee was in our department, so the people who were going to teach the book chose it, at least.

We have all these hopes that our students will hold lively intellectual discussions, but those discussions are hard to foster, and all the more difficult in schools (like ours) where so many of our students run from class to job or family responsibilities.

delagar said...

I think we have some of those same problems -- so many of our students work, and many of them are also older students; so they aren't able to come to the events (which are usually held at night) when the authors speak or do book-signings or when we hold discussions/debates about the books.

We do let anyone who wants to be on the committee on the committee. So I could be on the committee -- anyone could. But holy hell, I am already on so many committees, including this one which is eating my life. So I'm just not taking on another one. That's the state many of us are in, probably, at this point, when we are down five full-time professors in the department. (That is, we've lost five full-time people over the last few years, and not been allowed to hire replacements.)

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

We don't do this, but my very strong preference for such a book would be something from the ancient world, rather than contemporary: Antigone, say, or Marcus Aurelius, something accessible and perpetually relevant. I'm afraid there tends to be an assumption that "old" = "irrelevant and boring" but my experience teaching ancient texts is that most freshmen lap them up and beg for more. It makes them feel that they're getting a Real College Experience.

delagar said...

DEH: Yes, I've pushed -- often -- for NON-contemporary works. A number of them are short, almost all of them are available in inexpensive editions (or free online), and a long list of them (as you point out)are delightful to teach.

Plus, even though they are *filled* with controversy (BWAHAHA) no one will raise a fuss, because they are canonized as CLASSIC.

But we can't bring the author to campus, which means we can't get press for it. It's "not sexy." So, nope.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Re-enactors? Especially if they're grads of your uni.

Probably still not sexy enough, but I raise the possibility just in case it gives someone ideas . . . I have a former student with a sideline giving historical presentations in the character of a well-known 19th-c woman. She loves it, although she still needs her day job.