A Publication for the faculty, staff, administrators and friends of California State University, Chico
October 7, 2004 Volume 35/Number 2

The Provost's Corner

The Book in Common:
Why do we want students to read?

An elderly and now deceased relative of mine often said, “Reading rots the mind!” She meant that excessive reading unsuited a person for doing useful things like mending, sewing, gardening, cooking, or just plain earning a living. She might have taken comfort in the findings of the National Endowment for the Arts reported in June 2004. As “Reading at Risk” makes clear, substantially fewer people now read literature or even the newspaper, compared to 10 years ago. So what are people doing with their reading time? Some are watching television and some are spending a lot of time “reading” things on the Internet.

The continued shrinkage in the ranks of those who read serious literature, because of what we understand the promise of reading to be, is worrisome. Beyond the basic literacy that is necessary to a democracy, reading is a way of participating in worlds beyond one’s immediate reach. Reading is transformative: it can deepen our understanding of other people; it can allow us to leap forward in time; it can deepen our knowledge of the past; and it can allow us to have sympathy for the struggles of others.

Encouraging new students to read and to value reading is our challenge at the University. Reading is fundamental to the academy and to the process of lifelong learning; it’s integral to an education that prepares students to deal with an increasingly complex, connected, and challenging world.

We know most students come to college with some degree of computer literacy and spend much time “reading” and chatting on the Internet. We can’t assume that this Internet reading and chatting is a substitute for the serious reading and writing that develops higher thinking skills of interpretation, analysis, and synthesis. It isn’t a substitute for the kind of practice in developing arguments and testing one’s understanding of a text that comes through discussion with others. And, the nonlinear and fragmented way Internet information is delivered is inconsistent with our understanding of how people learn best: People learn best when there is a context for information and when there is a chance to read and review information, discuss it, and listen to alternatives.

The Book in Common project began five years ago in response to a growing concern about student reading and a desire to build intellectual community and invite new students to take part in it. Over the course of the last five years, we have asked all incoming students to read The Moon by Whale Light, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Fast Food Nation, The Soul of America, and now Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. It was intended that students would come, all having read a text, and then engage in conversations with one another and with their professors about the book. We would invite the authors of the text to campus to speak, to meet with the students, hold a class, and talk to interested members of the community. (Lester Brown, author of Plan B, will be here Nov. 16.) It was intended that many faculty would participate in selecting a book for the campus to read, read it themselves and, if not assign it in their class, then make reference to it whenever they could. In short, we would be engaged in a collective process of building an intellectual community.

The good news is that surveys we have conducted make it clear most of our students have read the Book in Common before they arrive on campus. It is good news that sometimes the book we have selected has been adopted by reading clubs in the community and by our partner in education, Butte Community College. It is heartening that when the authors of the texts have come to campus there have been large audiences of students and members of the community. Although not everyone was delighted with the selection of Fast Food Nation, the good news was that people cared enough about the issues, about the fast food industry and how beef is handled in this country, that they packed the CAPE forum organized to discuss the ideas.

The bad news is that students are not getting as many opportunities to discuss the book as they would like. Students report that they wish more faculty members would use the book.

This coming year, Bill Loker, anthropology, in his new role as associate dean of the Graduate School, International and Interdisciplinary Programs, will chair the Book in Common Committee (BICC). He will look for ways to enhance the success of the BIC program. He will oversee the creation of a Web site that will include suggestions on how to incorporate the BIC into various curricula, and provide sample syllabi and information on the book and author. He will seek input from faculty, staff, and students who have ideas about books that might serve the whole campus. It’s not an easy task to link a book with the content of a classroom in a way that is relevant to freshman students. This varied group can help do that.

A given book will almost always better serve the curricula of one college rather than another. But whatever discipline or college most benefits, I still enjoy reading what others have selected and, like you, I welcome the discussions of our students about the ideas and controversies posed by the works we select. This is the means by which we sustain the academy, contribute to the success of our students, and make Chico a distinctive university that continues to create high-quality learning environments inside and outside of the classroom.

—Scott G. McNall



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