What College Reading Lists Can Tell You About Quality, Diversity of Education Across Schools

Posted By Eliana Osborn on February 18, 2016 at 10:33 am
What College Reading Lists Can Tell You About Quality, Diversity of Education Across Schools

Will you get a different education at Paradise Valley Community College and Notre Dame University?  Maybe not as much as you would expect.  Research has shown that top universities don’t always have the most rigorous classes.  And a new project takes a look at the syllabi of campuses around the world.

The Open Syllabus project looks at fifteen years of available course documents from different colleges and universities.  A search function allows users to see what readings are most often assigned across schools, subject areas, and more.  Future work will be done using the massive data set of more than one million syllabi.

Perhaps because of the ubiquity of freshman composition courses, the most common text worldwide is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  A handbook isn’t exactly reading material though; Plato’s Republic ranks second across all subject areas.  A title like this with relevance in a wide variety of classes, from philosophy to Western civilization, explains its dominance on the list.

In terms of English departments, the top ranked titles (excluding handbooks) are:

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
  • Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

There’s a lack of American authors, with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby coming in at 11th on the list.  Other top titles are short works—the poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’

Why American authors are missing at many universities

Professor Wayne Narey of Arkansas State University has a variety of texts he selects from each semester for his Introduction to Literature courses.  These are frequent contenders though, plus sonnets from Shakespeare, Petrarch, and John Donne.

  • Oedipus the King
  • Medea
  • Hamlet
  • Othello
  • Gilgamesh
  • Genesis
  • The Odyssey
  • Morte D’Arthur                    
  • The Canterbury Tales
  • The Decameron 
  • The Metamorphosis  

Narey’s ASU list doesn’t necessarily reflect the university as a whole but does display a common emphasis on the very oldest texts.  Modern literature, or even Literature after 1900, are usually seen in less general classes.  The complete lack of American texts is more dramatic, as at least one is usually included.

Narey explained by email his thinking.  “I look for two qualities in the texts I order: good, succinct introductions to the primary text material, and price: too often students fail to purchase books because of cost or they wait until financial aid makes it possible.  Unless the text is affordable, I’ll have students go without texts for two weeks.”

Community college, small school reading lists

At Hawaii Community College, the reading list looks a bit different:

  • Metamorphoses
  • Daisy Miller
  • Baby No-Eyes
  • Phaedrus
  • Oedipus
  • Rhetoric
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • The Theban Plays

HCC does not include any Shakespeare texts on their top ten list, and heavily emphasizes the classics.  HCC and other community colleges focus on foundations, basic introductions to a variety of texts.  Faculty may select one or two unique titles but will share most of their lists in common.

At some schools, like Sam Houston University in Texas, the reading list top spots are all held by short works.  Stories, like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Trifles by Susan Glaspell are usually not articulated separately, as they are found in an anthology.  Even the novel, Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat, is exceedingly short.  Compared to larger or higher ranking universities, the length and complexity of reading lists seem to differ.  Even the Greek titles on many college syllabi are of minimal length, especially compared to Paradise Lost by John Milton, which shows up as the top title for Rutgers University and many others.

Diversity, women find a home in several elite university reading lists

The University of California-Berkeley is the most competitive school in the UC system, an already highly competitive group of schools.  Using data from all English syllabi, these are UCB’s most frequent titles:

  • Paradise Lost
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • The Faerie Queene
  • Mrs. Dalloway
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Passing
  • The Portrait of a Lady
  • Oroonoko
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The biggest difference between UCB and other schools is the preponderance of titles by women on their list.  Though canon texts are present, books with a wider range of perspectives are offered.  This is in line with the more liberal or progressive bent of the school.

English department lecturer Catherine Cronquist Browning explains why Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre makes the cut.  “I find that only a handful of incoming students have read it, so I’ve started assigning it in my Reading & Composition courses. At once, a window on British Victorian culture and a transcultural coming-of-age story, it combines all the best elements of mystery and romance with a more subtle commentary on how to establish one’s own independence and identity in a world fraught with challenges to both. It also provides a jumping-off point for thinking about the exploitation and suffering that took place in Britain’s colonies, especially for women, and particularly when read together with Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.”

Georgetown University is a private top-level research university.  The English syllabi at this level of school matches the diversity at UC Berkeley.

  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  • Life in the Iron Mills
  • Sweat
  • The Open Boat
  • Babylon Revisited
  • The Jungle
  • Lullaby
  • Daisy Miller

Some short texts are still present on the Georgetown list while the Western civilization titles aren’t.  One reason for the divergence of reading lists has to do with student preparation.  Incoming freshman at a top ranked school have generally read many of the titles on other schools’ syllabi.

Last summer, Anne Cheng of Princeton University talked about a text she assigns.  “I frequently teach several of Morrison’s novels, but my favorite one to teach is The Bluest Eye, because it encapsulates so well why literature is important to political and social life…People think that literature and fiction can reflect social reality, and of course they can. But I think literature does more than reflect reality; it can also provide a language to help us confront and think through that which is ineffable in the material realm. The Bluest Eye is an exquisite example of this.”

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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