“Penn State Reads” — But Will It?

As a new program for the Class of 2017, University Park is implementing a common reading program, called Penn State Reads. The first book of the program will be Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, by author Eyal Press. Copies will given out free at New Student Orientation, which is the new extended program replacing FTCAP. Students will be expected to be prepared for discussions and events planned around the book when they arrive in the fall.

Penn State Reads will build on ideas from the New Student Orientation, but it isn’t necessarily a part of it. It will supplement the orientation with various events and a visit from the author.

But here’s the thing: It’s not part of a class, and there is no real way of making a program set up like this mandatory. So will anyone actually do it?

As an English major, I feel like this is a program I should be all for. Yay reading! Yay books! Ideally, this sounds like it could work. Reading a little over 200 pages in three months should not be that hard. And it isn’t, but I think it will be hard getting students to do the work anyway. I spent my freshmen year at a branch campus, which had a similar common reading program, but it was to be incorporated with our First Year Seminar class.

I read the book, which was essentially a manners instruction guide, the last week of summer vacation, and on my first day in class, I was told we wouldn’t be even touching it. My professors hadn’t actually read it, nor did the majority of my classmates. This was not an uncommon thing. Though other professors chose to incorporate the text into their classes, the sense I got from friends was that they spent less than a class period on it.  The same thing happened with the common reading picked for this year.

There is a program with Schyerer’s that is based on a similar idea as the Common Reading, and served as a model for Penn State Reads. However, the students get to pick out of three different choices. This program is part of Schyerer’s orientation, called SHO TIME. The book selected is read over the summer, and there are book discussions during orientation. Though this program has been going on for fourteen years, students I talked to said it was not all that effective. Complaints were that the books were dull and hard to get through, and there was confusion as to what they were expected to do.

Realistically, I doubt most students are going to read a book like this (which is about ethics and morals) when they aren’t getting credit for it, no matter how wonderful the subject matter, or how well written it is. Even when it is for credit, a lot of students know they can get away with not reading something professors are going to spend weeks on. Perhaps I’ll be wrong, and that would be great.

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Sarah Lawrenson

Sophomore at Penn State, double majoring in English and Comparative Literature, with a minor in French.

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