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Putting Out the Fire: Common Reading Programs as Flash Points in Campus Culture Wars
In fall 2019, a small group of students gathered on the Georgia Southern University campus to burn some books. Earlier that year, the university had announced Make Your Home among Strangers, a novel by Cuban American author Jennine Capó Crucet, as the university’s common reading (CR) book for all newly enrolled students. When Crucet spoke at the university in October, she got into an argument with a student who objected to the book’s “generalizations about White people being privileged,” according to the Washington Post. After the event, several students burned their copies of Crucet’s book in a grill on the campus quad. Videos of the incident went viral, with Crucet writing on Twitter that the disruptions to her talk were a “hostile reaction” by “aggressive & ignorant” students, according to ABC News. “While it’s within the students’ First Amendment rights, book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas,” wrote John Lester, the university’s vice president for strategic communications and marketing, in a statement to the George-Anne student newspaper.
From 2017 to 2019, I served as the director of the CR program at Appalachian State University, a public university in western North Carolina. Appalachian State launched its program in 1997, at a time when CR programs were gaining popularity nationwide as an engaging way to improve the experience of incoming students. At their best, CR programs are a high-impact educational practice. By bringing the campus community together to read and discuss the same book as a common intellectual experience, CR programs create the sense of belonging and thirst for learning that position students for success at their new university. Discussions and opportunities for reflection structured around students’ reading can ignite a passion for learning, help students make interdisciplinary and cocurricular connections, provide practice in civil debate, and offer insights into authorial and creative processes. In addition, the intellectual engagement with a common book’s themes can help meet a university’s general education learning outcomes for first-year students while orienting students to the institution’s intellectual culture.
Yet, as the debacle at Georgia Southern illustrates, CR programs often receive a great deal of criticism and can become flash points in campus controversies and broader debates about higher education. Given the divergent assumptions and disagreements surrounding CR books, it is crucial that campus faculty and administrators clarify their CR program’s purpose and align the program’s practices—from the selection of books to the facilitation of campus discussions—with that purpose. Doing so will help CR programs meet educational goals, avoid explosively bad press, and more effectively face intense scrutiny.
At Appalachian State University, an interdisciplinary committee of faculty and staff reads books nominated by the campus community, discusses their value as educational tools for students, and makes final selections of CR books. Each spring, people on and off campus eagerly await the announcement of the selected book for the following academic year. During the summer, staff distribute the CR book, and the vast majority of first-year students report reading some or all of the book by the time they arrive on campus in August. During new-student orientation, nearly a hundred faculty and staff volunteers lead discussions on the book. Beyond the first-year orientation, many faculty, staff, students, and community members join informal reading and discussion groups to engage with the book’s themes. In the fall semester, the CR book is integrated into the first-year seminar, often serving as the inspiration for writing or research assignments.
Despite the excitement around the book, the CR program also generates critics. Some Appalachian State faculty members have described the program as a waste of resources because students (supposedly) do not read the book. Other faculty have criticized the book selections, feeling that the committee chooses “bad” books: either unexceptional books written by relatively unknown authors or books that are hard to teach. Critics have also denounced CR programs for violating standards of faculty governance and academic freedom when the books are not chosen by faculty but “by administrative wizards behind the curtain,” according to Harvey Michael Teres, an associate professor of English at Syracuse University who was quoted in Inside Higher Ed.
There have also been concerns about conflicts of interest, since CR programs can be cash cows for book publishers and authors. When I served as director of the CR program, publishers and authors routinely contacted me to recommend their books. Some faculty and alumni even nominated their own work. We also faced criticism from external groups that see CR programs as evidence of left-leaning ideological indoctrination on campuses today. Certainly, some people on our campus have pushed for a book to be chosen precisely because they did want to advance a specific ideological agenda. Needless to say, it’s a powder keg.
In 2019, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, which calls itself a nonprofit “watchdog” of higher education, criticized our CR book selection at Appalachian State, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, as violating institutional neutrality. The center based its criticism on a piece of North Carolina legislation passed in 2017 known as the Campus Free Speech Act, which states that institutions “may not take action, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day in such a way as to require students, faculty, or administrators to publicly express a given view of social policy.” Stanley Kurtz, coauthor of a Goldwater Institute model that was the basis for the free speech law, made a case on the James G. Martin Center website for why Just Mercy violates the policy: “When the University . . . assigns as its sole freshman summer reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, a brief against capital punishment, at a moment when capital punishment is a controversy in North Carolina, I’d suggest that we have a violation of institutional neutrality.” Kurtz’s argument presumes that the CR program or the university administration endorsed the book’s arguments and expected students to adopt them. But in order to violate the principle of institutional neutrality, we would have had to require students, faculty, or administrators to publicly express a given view of capital punishment, which of course we did not.
Years before the Georgia Southern University book burning and the Just Mercy controversy at Appalachian State, the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill made national news in 2002 as the defendant in a lawsuit. In the months after the September 11, 2001, attacks and the beginning of the US war in Afghanistan, UNC Chapel Hill selected a CR book about the Islamic faith, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells. The office of James C. Moeser, UNC Chapel Hill’s chancellor at the time, received more than twenty thousand postcards protesting the CR book selection on the grounds that the students were being taught to practice Islam or politically defend it. Some state legislators insisted that the university give equal time to a discussion of other religious faiths, and media commentators suggested that students should refuse to read the book. Three first-year students joined the Family Policy Network, a conservative interest group, in filing a federal lawsuit arguing that the CR assignment violated the religious liberties of incoming students. A federal judge denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction, and Moeser defended the CR book as “yeast for the bread of discussion.” Many students and alumni praised the book selection as useful in helping students understand the history and values of another major culture.
National organizations and media routinely criticize CR books because they view the selections as either insignificant fluff or as an attempt to indoctrinate students. The National Association of Scholars (NAS), a nonprofit that “seeks to reform higher education,” published a series of reports on college CR books titled—with thinly veiled disdain—Beach Books. Released annually from 2010 to 2019, each report listed the year’s most-selected CR books, scrutinized how administrators chose the books, and criticized what the reports’ authors perceived as left-leaning bias. CR books are routinely “progressive, recent, mediocre non-fiction” that skew “heavily to the left” and seek “the transformation of colleges into vessels for social justice activism,” wrote David Randall, NAS director of research, on the NAS website in 2020. Each year’s report offered an alternative list of CR book recommendations, which often seemed just as eager to put the association’s own politics into place.
Journalist John Tierney has criticized CR programs as being part of a larger agenda to turn the first year of college into a politically leftist “reeducation” training ground. After attending a national conference on first-year experience programs, Tierney argued that first-year experience courses—which he says are often taught by left-leaning faculty and staff who spend a lot of time discussing diversity and inclusivity—teach a “mix of trivia and social activism.” In this light, Tierney finds it fitting that the books marketed to and adopted by so many first-year programs are contemporary texts with messages about White privilege and social justice. He would prefer to see the entire first-year curriculum move from being an “ideological monoculture” that university bureaucrats determine to a culture focused on academic skill development under the direction of faculty members.
All of these criticisms can lead to the go-to condemnation that CR programs waste resources by focusing on social justice advocacy rather than rigorous academic work. As easy as it might be for academics to dismiss such criticisms, taking them seriously can help campuses avoid common mistakes and misunderstandings, advance the institution’s mission, and ensure that CR books prepare first-year students for college.
Both critics and supporters of CR programs often agree on the value of these programs for fostering civic engagement, but that term can have different meanings for different audiences. One group might denounce a book as promoting leftist activism; someone else might defend the book as simply promoting civic engagement. Conversely, a book conservatives embrace for civic learning might look like populist flag-waving to progressives. It is not enough for educators to defend a book simply as a part of a liberal education that promotes civic engagement, then, because that learning outcome, and how best to foster it, is deeply contested.
Instead, CR programs should outline their purpose and how it aligns with the university’s mission and learning outcomes. At institutions dedicated to promoting liberal education, CR programs can explain how such an education equips graduates to be informed and engaged citizens who can make positive contributions to a democratic society. As part of this education, CR programs do not tell students how to engage in the world or what specifically to believe. Rather, educators in CR programs can help students develop skills like critical thinking, the ability to examine an issue from multiple perspectives, and information literacy that translate to constructive engagement in the workplace, community, and world. Academic engagement leads to civic engagement; it does not direct it.
Some readers might think it’s naive to suggest that being clearer about a program’s purpose or learning outcomes will shield it from attack. After all, some critics simply want to keep certain ideas out of academia without any concern for the principles of institutional neutrality or academic freedom. But for every politically motivated critic, there are many more people who are persuaded by those critics because they don’t know a program’s purpose or a university’s mission. Clearly communicating the CR program’s purpose and learning outcomes can at least prevent, if not entirely stop, political actors from gaining influence and undermining the free exchange of ideas.
When the purpose of a CR program is not clear to students and the public, or if it frames its raison d’être as ideological, it is more likely to come under fire. But if a CR program instead explicitly frames its book selection as a way for students to read and discuss diverse viewpoints that the university neither accepts nor rejects, then people will be more open to engaging with the book and understanding the academic purpose of that engagement. Students, in turn, might be less likely to get frustrated with authors or universities that appear to be preaching to them. For example, when I was quoted in Appalachian State University’s press release announcing our selection of Just Mercy, I explained the book’s selection “for its relevance to a wide range of academic disciplines and because Stevenson’s work has had a profound impact on our society.”
Students must be taught that the university, as a place of polyvocality, will expose them to new—and sometimes even shocking or offensive—ideas that might challenge their beliefs and personal identities. In a well-rounded liberal education, students examine these different ideas, cultures, and arguments, and they do so in a context of curiosity, discovery, and deliberation. Academic freedom allows us to discuss and explore controversial ideas with a scholar’s spirit—that is, with a goal of determining what is true as opposed to affirming public opinion. When students read the same book as their classmates while taking their own unique set of courses, they begin to integrate their learning and see how the ideas in the book have bearing on multiple issues across a variety of contexts.
CR programs can also do a better job of explaining their purpose to common book authors, who are not necessarily academics. Faculty members take criticism as part of their roles as scholars and usually know the importance of reacting nondefensively as students wrestle with various intellectual arguments. In contrast, a memoir author who is not an academic professional may have little appreciation for this approach and no clear understanding of why their work was selected as a CR book. Authors might mistakenly believe that the selection of their book means the university explicitly endorses its content and perspectives, leading the author to perceive students’ challenges as insubordinate.
At the same time, of course, CR programs must prepare students to understand that CR authors—and, indeed, campus speakers more generally—may not respond to their questions and critiques the way their professors do. Just as class assignments encourage students to follow an argument to wherever it may lead, students must also learn how to engage with an idea based on its faults and merits, including when an idea comes from an outside speaker, who might not be as patient as college instructors. Such preparation can prepare parties from across the ideological spectrum for successful, productive discussions and avoid conflicts that significantly reduce the pedagogical value of CR programming.
In addition to communicating the purpose of a CR program, carefully designing the composition of the book selection committee will help bolster the program’s legitimacy and strength. CR programs should be led by faculty members who have the expertise relevant for establishing the academic purpose of the program. This is not to say there is no place for staff or administrative representatives on the CR book selection committee. Such campus constituents—especially advisors and tutors—are in excellent positions to gauge students’ preparation and interest levels for any given book. Staff members also typically play a major role in distributing the selected book and conveying its purpose to incoming students. All parties involved need to be clear about why the book was selected and how it fits into the university’s broader purpose of discovery and debate.
At Appalachian State, as soon as the CR committee selects a new book, campus librarians create an online guide to resources and services available related to the selected book. The CR program’s faculty director also develops a discussion guide for faculty and orientation leaders to use when they discuss the book with students. When I prepared the discussion guide as the CR program’s faculty director, I included a statement about our university mission, linked the book’s content and themes to our general education learning objectives, and encouraged discussion leaders to introduce students to the purpose of a liberal education and the principles of academic freedom. I also wrote a customized introduction that was inserted into the book, telling the students why this book was selected and what I hoped they would gain from the CR program.
Finally, despite continuous claims that CR programs waste resources, they need not be costly. Programs can publish their budgets to show how much (or how little) they spend. At Appalachian State, students purchase their copy of the CR book and contribute to the author’s speaking honorarium as part of the orientation fee. The total cost per student is around $10. But even a campus with a large number of students typically cannot pay the speaking fee for a Pulitzer Prize–winning author. If hearing from a living author is a goal of the program, then choosing lesser-known books by lesser-known authors can keep the fee low. However, if reading highly regarded books by famous authors is a more important goal, then the CR program can ask university scholars to speak about the book’s significance rather than inviting the author to campus. Students can even read a classic book that is in the public domain and available free of charge electronically.
Being clear about why a CR program exists, how it operates, and what students are expected to get out of it helps to get buy-in from the faculty and the public and protects the CR program from firestorms of controversy. With a well-formulated mission aligned with its budget and learning outcomes, the CR program can be an excellent way to orient each new crop of students to the university’s intellectual culture and expectations.
Martha McCaughey is a professor of sociology and the past director of the common reading program and first-year seminar program at Appalachian State University. She also serves as a writing fellow at Heterodox Academy.