I can remember the weeks before starting school at Skidmore College, furiously trying to finish Gregory Howard Williams’ memoir, Life on the Color Line. The book had been assigned as our freshman reading assignment — part of the First-Year Experience at the liberal arts school in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Four years later, Williams spoke at our graduation.
Lots of colleges have these reading programs; some are just for freshmen, and for others, the entire campus or local community joins in. The idea is that books will stir discussion — and unite a class or campus around a topic. Some schools even have the author speak on campus, or weave the book’s content into the year’s curriculum.
The programs are prevalent around the country, for schools big and small. Earlier this year, the National Association of Scholars looked at more than 350 colleges and universities and the books they assigned.
The books are often selected by the campus — by professors, current students and the incoming class, or a combination. They tend to be contemporary reads: NAS’s 2016 report found that most of the books assigned were published after 2010. In its sixth year, the report continues to be frustrated with the content of these programs. Among its key findings: “The list of readings continues to be dominated by recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books.”
In recent years, schools have featured books like Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Dave Eggers’ The Circle.
This year’s selections cover a range of topics; many are nonfiction, and several focus on climate change, race and other social issues.
Here are some reading assignments for first-year students at a few schools, from a community college in Michigan to a liberal arts campus in Massachusetts.