How Common Reader Programs Build Community

By Whitney Horn

The question of how to effectively introduce incoming college students to their university classes has long been on the minds of higher education administrators. One solution becoming more and more popular is common reader programs, where all incoming students are expected to read the same book over the summer. There is a lot of variation in common reader programs, and related activities range from group discussions, guest speakers, campus-wide games, and viewings of related content such as movie adaptations of the book. As university common reader programs have become a standard practice among American colleges at every level—community, state, and private—they have also been analyzed and scrutinized to make them as effective as possible.

According to Michael Ferguson, in an article on the Association of American Colleges and Universities website, “reading the same book brings people closer together as a community by creating common ground for discussion.” After the student body reads the selected book, university officials and professors can incorporate the book into orientation, coursework, and community events to allow students at least one topic they can discuss when meeting new people.

Greg Eiselein (ΦBK, University of Idaho, 1986) is an English professor at Kansas State University and the Director of K-State First, the university’s first year experience program. The common reader part of the program is the Kansas State Book Network, or KSBN. Starting in 2010, Kansas State has assigned a summer reading book for each incoming class. These books have included popular fiction like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and non-fiction books such as the most recent 2016 pick, Spare Parts by Joshua Davis.

The committee selecting the book each year includes professors from several disciplines, university staff, and students. Eiselein says that it is essential for students to have a say in what books are chosen. “Students will give us the most honest answers about if other students will read the book,” he notes. There is a difference between what professors and professionals think 18-year-olds want to read and what they actually want to read, Eiselein observes, and having students on the selection committee ensures that this gap is closed.

Ferguson argues that, at their best, common reader programs “can help students understand the interdisciplinarity and integration that are at the heart of liberal learning.”  This is another thing Eiselein and the selection committee consider when choosing a book. Eiselein wants the book to be accessible to every potential reader on campus.  “We try really hard to pick a book that’s going to appeal to all kinds of majors,” Eiselein says. “The psych majors from this angle and the science majors from this angle. All people feel like they can make it their book.”

Nationwide, the books that are selected for common reader programs tend to be political in nature and deal with hot-button issues. Maxine Joselow analyzed what books are being picked for an Inside Higher Ed article. She found that the two break-away topics for books chosen are immigration and racial injustice. The food industry and environmental issues were also frequently chosen book themes.

Eiselein believes that books should be chosen with an aim toward setting the message and the tone for students’ academic careers. “We should challenge [incoming students] with the difficult mind-expanding texts that they aren’t likely to just pick up on their own and read on the beach,” he said. “My experience with K-State First is that the more we challenge students, the more they push themselves.” To Eiselein, if a book is compelling and inviting everyone to the discussion, then the common read is doing its job.

The reason for Eiselein’s dedication to K-State’s common reader program is his determination to reach two big goals:

“One [goal] is about sending the right message. College is about learning, and one of the ways we learn is reading books. College educated people read books, and here’s your first one. The other [goal] is the chance to build community.”  

For K-State, community means family, and Eiselein insists that families should do more stuff together. The motto of KSBN is “A campus on the same page,” and Eiselein believes that by reading a book together, not only can the K-State family be doing something together, it can build and strengthen the bonds on campus and beyond.

The 2017-2018 KSBN book is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.

Whitney Horn is a senior majoring in English at Kansas State University. Kansas State is home to the Beta of Kansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.