Reading matters: why we’re bringing freshers to book

Paul Greatrix on exposing an entire cohort to an American pedagogical classic, the common reading programme, and a classic American novel 

May 5, 2016
Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby
Source: Alamy
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was a hit with University of Nottingham undergraduates

Times Higher Education’s recent feature “Books to read before university” made a strong case for the value of reading for new university students, with academics providing recommendations for the books they thought every undergraduate should read. Some powerful arguments were made about why it is so important for students read beyond the disciplinary boundaries of their degree studies, and to undertake some detailed, sustained study of a text.

At many US universities, one activity designed to achieve this end is a common reading programme. All new students are provided with a copy of a book – which may be fiction or non-fiction – and asked to read it before arriving, or in the first few weeks of term.

Several institutions in the UK, including the University of St Andrews and Kingston University, have also introduced common reading programmes. At the University of Nottingham, we ran a pilot reading programme in 2014-15 for new students at one of our halls of residence. It met with a very positive response, and the programme was extended to all students enrolling at the UK campus at the start of the 2015-16 academic year. With F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as our text, the scheme was aimed at enhancing the learning experience in a number of ways, including: 

   •     creating a sense of community by providing a useful starting point for conversation among students to build friendships as they begin their degree; 

   •     providing a shared intellectual experience outside of the formal curriculum. As undergraduates typically have not studied identical curriculums at school, there is often little bringing them together with their peers apart from a common determination to learn;

   •     undertaking informal exercises and assignments aligned to the themes of the selected title, including discussions and debates, structured sessions with academic tutors, and a writing competition for a creative response to the book; 

   •     setting academic expectations by demonstrating a serious purpose from the beginning of students’ degrees, and giving an alternative to the traditional emphasis on social activities in freshers’ week.

Integrated into students’ induction activities, the programme also sought to emphasise the many and varied benefits of wider reading.

We found choosing the right book to be rather difficult. We considered lots of possibilities before alighting on the Fitzgerald classic. Lists are published every year of US universities’ choices, with many opting for contemporary non-fiction, and relatively few for classic novels. Columbia University, distinctively, always provides new students with a copy of The Iliad (presumably in translation). Where books by living authors are chosen, it allows for the possibility of inviting them to undertake a reading and talk to students (sadly not an option with Fitzgerald).

Although running the programme for all new students rather than just one hall of residence proved challenging, there was really great feedback from students, and clearly many benefits, including for those participating at the university’s campuses in Malaysia and China. 

Following that success, we are set on running the programme again in 2016-17. We’re still having difficulty choosing the right book this year and our steering group of academic and professional staff from across the university is working hard to narrow down our list. It would be great to hear about other universities offering reading programmes, and in particular about their choice of book. Whatever we choose, I’m really keen to get all of our new students reading.

Paul Greatrix is registrar at the University of Nottingham.

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Reader's comments (1)

This was interesting, and mirrors our findings. We began as a student-academic research project from within our MA Publishing course. Having heard of similar schemes in the US, we surveyed a representative sample of our first year cohort in 2014-15 to find out a) how they spent their leisure time, b) what part reading for pleasure played in their leisure time and c) whether, if a shared reading scheme had existed before arrival, they would have taken part. Finding very positive responses in all cases (and much higher value placed on reading for pleasure than we had anticipated), our VC wanted to go ahead immediately - and he chosen the book. Nick Hornby is a Kingston alumnus and 'About a boy' made a very good choice, enabling us to get started straightaway - it's about London, about transition and settling in - and the author was willing to come and talk to the students. Our experience was similar - the students loved it (consistent reports of feeling 'welcomed' and 'expected' and delight at receiving a 'present') but just as significantly our staff also responded very well - feeling 'included' and more conscious of community. Whole departments used the title for team building and the library staff set up book groups as a result. For our second year we had more time to consult and, again working as a student-staff research project, we asked for title suggestions from across the community. Having researched how books are chosen for such schemes in the US, we were very keen that this should be a community initiative rather than over-curated by any discipline or management group. We had over 100 suggestions and then worked with our IT department and a data analyst to develop an algorithm. After discussions with students and staff, we fed in all the coordinates that it was thought would make a good Kingston choice (e.g. we wanted a book by an author who would come to Kingston and talk and not one that had been on the GCSE syllabus), and coded the suggested titles accordingly - leaving the Hornby book on the list so we could see how that scored in comparison with the new titles. This was how we generated our short list of six books (the first shortlist for a literary prize to be generated by computer?) which was then read by a panel drawn from across the whole university: staff; students; administrative and academic colleagues - including four from Edinburgh Napier University who will be joining us this year, so we can compare outcomes from within two different institutions. Our final choice was Matt Haig's 'The Humans' (Canongate) and we are looking forward to welcoming him in September. You can read about what was learned from working across a whole university here: and the first academic paper on The KU Big Read has just been accepted by Logos, and will appear in the next edition. Assoc Professor Alison Baverstock, Director, The KU Big Read, Kingston University

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