English professors, such as Emory Maiden, have been trying "forever" to get college students to read more, says the 19th century American literature specialist at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. It's only more recently that administrators are starting to catch on that summer reading programs can be effective tools for orienting incoming freshmen to institutions' expectations and values, and can alert the students to some of the concerns they'll encounter at their school, he says.
"I think administrators have bought this as a great way to sort of get students into the game," says Maiden, who is the director of Appalachian State's Summer Reading Program, which the school created in 1997.
He hasn't seen enough data to say that most schools have summer reading programs, but Maiden is comfortable saying that many do and that the number is increasing. Depending upon the institution, the books may be required or recommended reading, he adds.
When colleagues from other institutions ask his advice, Maiden says the books shouldn't be forced on students. "You really want to get out of the mode of, 'This is high school, and we're going to make you do it, and you'll get a call from the principal if you don't.' We're trying to signal that universities are different," he tells inquiring colleagues. "Believe it or not, people in college read books because they want to—because they're recommended."
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When they assign summer reading books to incoming freshmen, professors may get an "incomplete" grade if they do little more than draw upon their favorite books as undergraduates, according to Vince Fitzgerald, professor of English at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif. "The result is often disappointing," he says. "Sometimes teachers may be less in love with the text than they remembered, and more in love with being 18."
Summer reading needs to be easy to grasp since it's unguided, says Fitzgerald, the director of NDNU's First Year Experience program. And the books incoming college students read should prepare them to start thinking as "autonomous, brand-new adults taking their first steps into discovering and developing their own values, not just the ones they inherited back home," he adds.
Variety is also important, notes Andrew Vogel, an assistant professor of English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania who prescribes a broad spectrum of books, both easy and challenging, to incoming college students.
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"They should read trashy beach books. They should read histories. They should read science. They should read news outlets—newspapers, magazines and blogs. They should read a classic or two, something by Mark Twain or Toni Morrison, and maybe even some poetry like Tracy Smith or Rita Dove," Vogel says. "It doesn't matter precisely what they read; it matters that they are reading—and not just reading, but they should start cultivating the habit of reading thoughtfully."
But it's not always easy for students to buckle down and read over the summer, particularly if they're tackling the classics, says Andrew Longemann, chairman of the Department of English Language and Literature at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass.
"Too many students learn in high school that reading is like eating your vegetables—something that's not fun but is good for you," he says. "The classics are wonderful and worthwhile, but if they feel like a responsibility or an obligation, the life drains out of them for students."
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One way students can remain engaged in their reading is by selecting works that require them to pay attention to individual words, says Jennifer Purdie, an adjunct English professor at Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa. That's why she recommends British classics, such as works by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, to American freshmen.
"It trains them to pay attention to the words on the page rather than skim through the reading," she says. "I also recommend students use their online dictionary, or real dictionary, to look up words they don't know. This increases their vocabulary. You'll find more challenging words in the classics."