Social justice this year's hot topic for summer reading assignments

Incoming freshmen across the country are being introduced to social justice concepts before even setting foot on campus, through increasingly prevalent summer reading assignments.

Although common reading programs can be optional, many administrators are choosing books that encourage students to critically assess social struggles in the season of Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Students at Wesleyan University, for instance, will read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, which argues that strict sentencing laws for drug crimes intentionally targeted black men.

“It builds a lot on the issues of Black Lives Matter that we and many universities dealt with last year,” Wesleyan Provost Joyce Jacobsen told Inside Higher Ed. “It’s about the systematic aspect of racism, in the sense that the incarceration rate is so much higher for minorities. It’s the kind of book that students would start grappling with in college and keep reading after college.”

Students at the University of Oregon will read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Written as a letter from an African-American man to his son, Coates’ book contends that racial injustice is ingrained in American culture.

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage,” The New York Times quotes from a passage in the book.

Oregon has developed a reading guide and discussion program around the book, comparing it to The New Jim Crow and introducing a broader conversation about being black in America.

Student in the University of Arizona’s honors program, meanwhile, have been assigned Citizen: An American Lyric. This artistic book by poet Claudia Rankine features multiple sections on her personal experiences with microaggressions as well as a list of African-American men shot by police—a chapter that ends with the phrase “because white men can’t police their imagination black men are dying.”

Patricia Maccorquodale, Dean of the Honors College at UA, said the book will indeed be controversial, and even challenging for the faculty who teach it, but argued that challenging the reader is an important quality of a good summer read.

“Students are interested in diversity and understanding other perspectives, and it’s something they may or may not have gotten in their own backgrounds and their own high schools,” she said. “The book should make them uncomfortable. It should get them to think outside their comfort zones and their own experiences. It should get them to think about privilege and how it’s produced structurally in society.”

In contrast to the trend at other schools, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has selected Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande, a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller, for its first-year student summer reading program.

Gawande, a surgeon, discusses the ethics of prolonging the lives of the elderly and terminally ill, while touching on the sensitive topic of assisted suicide.

“He helps us confront death by encouraging open discussion about important matters faced by every family for which medicine can ultimately provide no answer,” said Tim Marr, distinguished associate professor of American studies and chair of the committee that made the selection. “The book is an eloquent and informative celebration of life that contrasts three generations of a South Asian family and emboldens our appreciation of everyone’s need to exist with integrity until the end.”

First-year and transfer students at UNC are invited to read the book before arriving on campus, where they can join small discussion groups led by faculty and undergraduate residence hall advisers.

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