Summer Reading & the First-Year English Classroom

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Lehigh Culture & Community / Teaching

Laura: Every year, the incoming first-year students have a book to read in preparation for discussion groups and related activities, all intended to create a shared experience to immediately bring the students together and make them feel part of Lehigh. These books are chosen by the Summer Reading Committee, which meets several times every Spring to read and discuss prospective texts. We start out with dozens of books, mostly selected by Allison Ragon, the Assistant Dean of Students for First-Year Experience. However during the early meetings any member of the committee may suggest a book for the list. The committee is comprised of mostly staff members and undergraduate students, with one or two faculty members and grad students. The first meeting or so is the easy part: faced with a huge number of possibilities, we read through blurbs about the books and weed through them based on whether they’re available in paperback, how long they are, and how relevant they are to our first-year students. I have only been on the committee for two years, but I believe that this was the first year we had a theme in mind when choosing a book: justice. Since this is such a broad theme, however, it didn’t really help us to narrow our selection, and we had a difficult time settling on any books that we liked until the very end.

Once we get the book list down to a manageable number, Allison orders books, and we all take turns reading them: I’d usually leave a meeting with at least two books. In the early stages, we’d only read the first fifty pages, which might sound unfair, but we figure that’s about how far a first-year student in the midst of the last summer before college will read before deciding to either finish the novel or abandon it. For a lot of the books this year, we didn’t make it past the first fifty pages. Part of this was, I think, influenced by the cultural climate on campus and the extra caution we felt against texts that had the potential to reinforce stereotypes or negative attitudes. Many of the books that featured long, involved court cases were often too dry to expect students to read in the summer, or they were too “Oprah Book Club” (my words). Most of the discussion started with pure reader response—how did you react to this book?—before moving on to possibilities for group discussions and events. This year, we had settled on Class Matters as the only book about which most of the group felt optimistic (the only worry was that it would feel too “old” to the students) when one of the undergraduate students recommended a book she had read in first-year English: Now You See It… Stories from Cokesville, PA, a book written about Bethlehem with connections to class and work and education and family. Basically, the perfect book. So, we decided to do something completely different: allow the students to choose, either nonfiction or fiction, in the hope that students will feel more committed to a book they chose themselves.


Emily: Of course, we won’t know how the choice of books will impact the students’ opinion on the Summer Reading until the students provide us with feedback after Orientation. (Although we do know that the majority of the Class of 2018 chose Class Matters.) A large part of the students’ perspective, however, will be impacted by the success of the Summer Read discussions during Orientation, as well as how they see the issues and questions raised by the readings continuing through academic discussions and on-campus events. This is where first-year writing instructors enter the picture. We have the opportunity to integrate the Summer Reading selection(s) into our English 001 and 011 classrooms. The benefit for the students is greater coherence between their student life and academic work. Those of us who work with first-year students also benefit from this greater coherence; students will be less inclined to dismiss their required work (the Summer Reading and First-Year English) if we, working together, demonstrate the benefits of reading, discussing, and writing about fiction and non-fiction texts. The 2014 Summer Reads are particularly appropriate for the First-Year English classroom within a program dedicated to thinking about the relationships between literature and social justice; each text explores class, justice, and storytelling in short selections that are easily excerpted. Click here for more information about the two books, including questions for thought:


So, how can you incorporate the Summer Reading selections into your classroom? The easiest way is simply to be informed about the texts and to chat casually about them with your students. If you have a vague sense of what the books are about, you can encourage students to find connections during class discussions or can talk one-on-one with them about their Summer Reading experience. The Summer Reading experience can also be used as an icebreaker. During the first week of class, you could lead students in a discussion of their selections: why did some students choose the non-fiction book? Why did others choose fiction? How did their genre choice impact their conception of class? What are the benefits and drawbacks of either genre? Do fiction and nonfiction require different reading habits? This type of conversation can prepare students for the mixed fiction and non-fiction texts they will encounter in a typical English 001 curriculum and will help you articulate your expectations concerning their reading practices.

You could also include selections from either text (or even the full text) in your syllabus. Either text (or selections) would fit into units on class, race, gender, education, work, home, and technology. Class Matters has several essays on the intersections between class and education, any of which would be useful for a schooling unit. While Cokesville reads best as a whole, its chapters are short stories, each one exploring what it’s like to grow up in a steel town like Bethlehem. Some stories delve into issues of race, the impact of war, and what it means to be a writer. Of course, not all of your students will have read both books, so, if you do incorporate a book or selections, some of your students will be reading the text for the first time. This is ideal. The mix of students who have and have not read the text before disrupts a common problem with incorporating the Summer Reading: students don’t want to re-read the text and therefore cannot discuss it with specificity and accuracy. New readers will bring fresh eyes and memories to the discussion. As for those who have read the text before, they will be encouraged to re-read, to see how repeated discussions about a text can bring to light new meanings and implications. Last but certainly not least, first-year students have the opportunity to have their thoughts on the Summer Reading published in the Lehigh Review. You could ask students to write a response to the Lehigh Review prompts as a beginning of the semester writing activity or even as a jumping off point for a major paper. If you would like more information on either of the Summer Reading selections (or would like a copy), please contact me at If you already have planned to incorporate the Summer Reading into your course or if you have suggestions and ideas for others, please share them in the comments below!

There are three final ways to be involved with the Summer Reading: lead a discussion during Orientation, join the Book Selection Committee, and suggest a Summer Reading for 2015. The OFYE still needs facilitators for the Summer Reading discussions on Sunday, August 24, from 3:00pm to 4:30pm. To be a Discussion Leader, you only need to read one of the books. You will get a free copy of the book and a discussion guide beforehand. See the Summer Reading website (above) for instructions on signing up. If you would like to join the Book Selection Committee or to make a Summer Reading suggestion, let me know (

The Summer Reading is one of the only shared intellectual experiences for first-year students. Our campus is shaped by the issues of class, education, and justice explored in these selections; as First-Year English instructors, we often see students learning about and negotiating the dynamics of class at Lehigh. We, also, have had to learn about and negotiate the dynamics of class at Lehigh. Engaging in the Summer Reading—at any of the levels suggested above—helps our community to have a shared language and reference points for these complicated and difficult topics. The quality, depth, and sustainability of our conversations on these issues have the potential to shape the Class of 2018 and the wider Lehigh Community.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: What Nourishes Us?: Summer Reading 2016 | Drown Unbound

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