Miami summer reading program enters 35th year

With most recent high school graduates taking a break from studying before entering college this fall, incoming freshmen at Miami University already have an assignment.

Miami’s incoming freshman class will read a book over the summer as part of the school’s Summer Reading Program. When they come to campus in August, they will talk about the book with their fellow classmates — all before they step foot into a classroom.

“The idea was that the summer gap between students graduating from high school and beginning the college experience was sort of looked at by Miami as an opportunity to get people to think of what they wanted out of their college education,” said Richard Taylor, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at MU.

Taylor is entering his third year as director of the Office of Liberal Education, the department that oversees the program.

Started in 1982, the program is entering its 35th year at the Oxford school. Each incoming freshman will read the book during the summer before reporting to campus for convocation in late August. Most years, the author of the book will speak at the convocation.

Afterward, students break into small groups to discuss the book and the author’s comments at the convocation.

This year’s book is “Spare Parts” by Joshua Davis. The book tells the story of a group of undocumented Mexican American students at an Arizona high school who won a 2004 robotics competition. They defeated a team backed by MIT, despite attending an underfunded high school.

Davis will speak at the school’s convocation on Aug. 26.

Taylor said the program tries to tie the subject matter of the assigned book into events happening at the school during the academic year. This year’s title, dealing with students achieving despite long odds stacked against them, tied in with MU’s Symphony Orchestra performing Beethoven this fall in celebration of its 100th anniversary.

“He’s a very relevant composer because he had to confront limitations based on his ongoing loss of hearing and still be a composer, where the students in the summer reading book had to deal with limited resources as well,” Taylor said.

The book selection process begins early in the previous academic year, Taylor said. Faculty who volunteer with the program are surveyed about which books they would like to see read the following summer. Throughout the year, they narrow the suggestions down until they make a choice for the following summer.

“The best books are the one that have legs and continue the dialogue after convocation,” Taylor said.

Taylor said freshmen have a wide variety of responses to reading a book before school starts.

“I think there are a good number of students who find this a very good way to get started in college,” he said. “I’m sure that there are students who view this as one extra burden to be gotten through.”

“For the most part, they accept the spirit of what we are trying to accomplish,” he said.

Taylor said that the programs relies on volunteers ranging from faculty, libraries and even students. The volunteers will facilitate the small group discussions after Convocation. Taylor said the programs likes to have 200 volunteers for small groups. He said with almost 4,000 incoming freshmen, which would account for 200 groups of 20.

The program has featured works by George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison and Elie Wiesel, among others.

The students do not receive a grade for completing the program, even though the school states it as their “first assignment as a university student.”