Summer is a time to relax, hang out with friends and maybe land a job as a lifeguard at the pool. With so much to do, the Summer Reading Program (SRP) seems like a contradiction to some students. After all, summer is meant to be the time when students can enjoy the fact that they do not have to read.
“I read the first part of the book,” first-year Jackie Green said. “I didn’t finish it because I got caught up doing other things.”
According to Green, the summer after high school is one of the only times students get a break from their studies.
The committee for the SRP sees things a little differently. For them, summer is a time to prepare the incoming class of students for the liberal arts education Miami offers.
However, each year the book chosen by the SRP committee is met with mixed levels of participation from the first-year class it is assigned to.
Jennifer Kinney 2012 committee-co chair said she usually gets mixed reactions to the book.
“We always get those who really get into the book,” Kinney said. “Then we get the ones who only read parts and pieces, and then there’s always some who don’t touch the book at all.”
The SRP has stood as an introduction for the incoming first-year class to the liberal art education at Miami for the past 31 years, according to John Jeep, professor and interim director of international studies and co-chair of the 2012 summer reading committee. Since then the committee has worked hard to choose books that interest students and encourage discussion. Most of the time, the author of the chosen book comes to convocation to speak to the new class of first-years, according to Jeep.
“I think our list of speakers and the variety of topics we have would hold up to anybodies,” Jeep said. “And ours might even be the best.”
Past author/speakers include Caryl Phillips, Barbara Ehrenreich, Tim O’Brien, Cornel West, Taylor Mali and Abraham Verghse.
After the author of the assigned book speaks at convocation, students attend discussions about the book led by resident assistants and Miami faculty. The pillars of the Miami Plan are introduced and discussed in the context of the assigned book during convocation.
The SRP was designed to, “introduce students to what it means to be a part of an academic community where we can talk about ideas and express our opinions and learn about different opinions,” Kinney said.
Jeep said the discussions also feed a social purpose, as it is, “the first thing that the incoming class does together.”
Kinney seconded this opinion.
“It is also used for students to meet the people with whom they’re going to be living,” Kinney said. “I think students are generally more interested in meeting people than discussing the book.”
Statistics from the 2011 Student Voice online survey offered to first-year students after their first week at Miami show that roughly 62 percent of the students who completed the survey read the SRP book.
“I think everyone will agree too few students read the book and the discussions would be better if more did,” Jeep said.
First-year Stephanie Pearce said she did not stay for the whole discussion.
“We left our group early, only a couple of people had read it and the discussion didn’t have enough structure to be worth our time,” Pearce said.
Lauren Sicterman, also a first-year said she enjoyed the discussion groups.
“It was a good thing to get us all together and force us to talk to each other at the beginning of the year,” Sicterman said.
Kinney said the loss of focus on the reading might be a result of the presentation of the SRP to the new class.
“Even though we try to explain what the SRP is, I think they are overwhelmed in a sense by everything going on during orientation,” Kinney said. “I think that we could do a better job explaining what the program is.”
First-year Susannah Carson agreed the program is under-explained.
“I think they sent us an e-mail,” Carson said. “I didn’t read (the assigned book) because the e-mail said there would only be a discussion group. I actually thought it was optional.”
Kate de Medeiros, first-time Summer Reading Program committee member, is looking deeper into the situation.
She said today’s students have a different take on education than past generations and have assembled focus groups to find out more.
“I have heard the fear is that fewer students are reading the book,” Medeiros said. “The focus groups are meant to figure out why.”
Medeiros and Kinney are in the process of organizing focus groups made up of the most recent class to experience the SRP. The students complete a short anonymous survey and then participate in a discussion.
According to Medeiros, the focus groups aim to accomplish two goals.
“First we want to know how students perceive the value of liberal education as a whole,” Medeiros said. “Second, we want to know the value of the Summer Reading Program in general. Is it a perceived value thing, a marketing thing or a time thing that stops students from reading?”
Kinney said one of the things students say is that the book “disappears” after graduation.
First-year Sam Bopp agreed.
“I wish the book would have been related to something,” Bopp said. “I felt like they just kind of made us read it for nothing.”
Katie Terlop said she also wanted more to do with the SRP book.
“My friends at other schools have classes that all freshman take that are based around their summer reading book and I think that would be more useful than the discussion groups,” Terlop said.
Current curriculum does not require any use of the SRP book, according to Jeep.
“We highly suggest and encourage the professors to include the book, but we don’t impose it,” Jeep said.
The idea of including some sort of comprehension test has been thrown around. This idea may get students to read more, but according to Jeep would not create
the desired result.
“We could have a test, which would be logistically difficult, but in the end, isn’t college about choice?” Jeep said.
Medeiros said there are pros and cons to that idea.
“It would be great to encourage more class participation but only if it suits their needs,” Medeiros said. “Academic freedom is important.”
A possible idea to involve students on a voluntary basis is to include writing projects.
This year Director of the journalism program and Interim Chair of the communications department Richard Campbell plans to use the National Public Radio story core program to extend the summer reading book into the fall semester.
According to Campbell, the story core project is meant to encourage students to tell their own stories and to hear stories from others.
“Our version of story core is to capture the voices and stories in audio,” Campbell said.
Campbell plans to involve the Miami ROTC program in the story core program.
This project relates directly to the 2012 SRP book, Shade It Black¸ which is the story about Jess Goodell’s experience as a Marine. Campbell said it is important for students to be informed about war and the veterans who served in it.
“The goal is to make the war (in Iraq) more real to people,” Campbell said.
Medeiros and Kinney will use the research from the focus groups to find out what else might involve students more. This year they will also use more technological sources of advertising like Facebook and Twitter.
Kinney said the most important solution to the issue would be to properly introduce the SRP. She said it is important to make sure all staff and students in leadership positions are on board with the reading program.
“A lot of students are overwhelmed by coming to college,” Kinney said. “If we don’t do a good job explaining what the Summer Reading Program is, it becomes one more thing on a big list of unknowns.”