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Logo: American Democracy Project: Freshman Summer Reading Program

2004 Summer Reading Program:
A Summary and Analysis of the
Student and Instructor Survey

By: Christopher Price
Feb. 2005

This report summarizes and analyzes a survey of students and instructors about SUNY Brockport’s 2004 Summer Reading Program (SRP) and the book selected, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. At the end of the Fall 2004 semester, 592 students completed the survey on a scantron form administered in their Academic Planning Seminar (APS) classes. In December 2004 and January 2005, 67 instructors completed the survey online using Angel (SUNY Brockport’s course management tool). Both the student and instructor versions of the survey used a yes/no question format. The instructor version of the survey included three open-ended questions. (All responses to these questions are included in Appendix A.) The student survey was completely anonymous. The faculty survey contained identifying information but this information was not used to compile and analyze the results. No faculty identifying information is included in this summary. The results are included in the following tables: students in Table 1, all instructors in Table 2, Fall 2004 APS Instructors in Table 3, and all non-APS instructors in Table 4.

Almost all of the students (98%) and most of the instructors (79%) received a copy of Nickel and Dimed. It also seems that most students (78%) and instructors (84%) read the book. (Although the actual percentage of instructors who actually read the book could be lower since the instructors who did read were probably more likely to take the survey.) 81% of the students claimed that they would not have been more likely to read the book if they had been required to purchase it and 80% of the instructors agreed that making students buy the book would not make them more likely to read it.

Several questions were more specific with regard to Nickel and Dimed. These results also show where students and instructors differ somewhat in their opinions. While 93% of the instructors who read the book stated that they found it informative, only 59% of the students had the same opinion. And of those who did not read Nickel and Dimed, 54.5% of the students versus 31% of the instructors stated that they would have been more likely to read something on a different topic. The results of both of these questions seems to suggest is that the content of the book mattered more to students than to instructors. Students and instructors also disagreed about whether the SRP should continue in summer 2005. While 85% of instructors stated that it should continue, only 39% of students indicated the same preference.

Student ambivalence about the SRP was not due to a lack of attention to the book in APS classes as 65% of students responded that Nickel and Dimed was incorporated into their APS section. (76% of APS instructors indicated that they had incorporated the book into their course.) 56% of students also claimed that the book had been discussed in other non-APS classes while only 36% of the non-APS instructors stated that they had incorporated Nickel and Dimed into their classes. The negative student impression of SRP could also be due to the fact that only 28% of students indicated they had discussions about Nickel and Dimed outside of class. The 2005 SRP should therefore strategize about ways to incorporate the book into the co-curriculum.

In contrast to students, the instructor response to the SRP was overwhelmingly positive. This is especially true for the 21 APS instructors who completed the survey. Out of the APS instructors, 100% read the book, 85% found it informative, 86% incorporated it into their APS class, 86% did not find the subject matter difficult to incorporate into APS, 76% were comfortable with someone else selecting a book for their classes, and 86% responded that SRP should continue in 2005. The opinions of the non-APS instructors were only slightly lower for each of these questions with the notable exception of the question about comfort with others selecting books for their classes – 61% stated that this would make them uncomfortable. Instructors were also largely in agreement about when the SRP book should be distributed – 85% responded that the book should be mailed out in the summer and not given out during orientation.

The open-ended instructor comments are very diverse. A common theme that runs throughout the first question, which asked them about the type of book most appropriate for the SRP, is that the book should be relevant to the lives of students and accessible. However, a couple instructors were displeased with the “domestic” and “backyard” focus of Nickel and Dimed and would like to see the SRP more strongly challenge incoming students preconceived notions about their lives and the world. Others complained that the book was not “realistic” enough and that students “saw right through it.” The comments were evenly split with regard to the controversial and ideological nature of Nickel and Dimed. While some respondents indicated that the SRP should be more “balanced,” others expressed satisfaction about the way the book provoked debate. A couple of the respondents indicated that they would like to see the SRP address religious/spiritual issues.

As for improvements to the SRP, many of the instructors asked for more events on campus related to the book so as to increases student interest. Several specifically recommended that the college invite a speaker who can speak to the topic of the book. Many of those who commented simply suggested that the SRP should “choose a better book.”

The comments about ways to make it easier for instructors to incorporate the book into their classes were different for APS and non-APS instructors. The APS instructors suggested that there be more of an effort to show that the SRP is valuable through providing specific lesson plans for APS instructors as well as lectures and events. The non-APS instructors were insistent that if the book does not address the subject matter of their course that they would not change their course to make it fit. Other instructors indicated that they teach predominantly juniors and seniors who have not read the book.

Overall, the results of the survey show that the 2004 SRP was successful. While students seemed to be divided about the book, they did read it and were exposed to discussion in their classes. Instructors seem to have bought in to the SRP – and especially the APS instructors. Given these survey results, this report makes the following four recommendations for the 2005 SRP:

  1. As with the 2004 SRP, distribute the book to all incoming first year students free of charge over the summer.
  2. In order to increase student buy-in to the SRP, pay particular attention to the type of book chosen. While students don’t have to “like” the book, they should be challenged and engaged without being “put off” by the book. Perhaps the letter to students accompanying the book can indicate exactly why the book was chosen.
  3. Make more of an attempt to integrate the SRP into the co-curriculum (invite speakers, sponsor lectures, conduct debates, get residence hall and other co-curricular staff more involved etc.)
  4. Provide more guidance to APS instructors on how to incorporate the book in their classes using lesson plans, materials, other books etc. Encourage non-APS faculty to incorporate the SRP book into their classes and make these materials available to them as well.

Table 1: Students

Survey Question Total Responses Total Yes (%) Total No (%)
1. Did you receive a copy of Nickel and Dimed in summer 2004? 592 578 (98) 14 (2)
2. Did you read Nickel and Dimed last summer? 591 459 (78) 132 (22)
3. If you did read Nickel and Dimed (answered “Yes” for Question 2 above), did you find the book informative? 489 289 (59) 200 (41)
4. If you did not read Nickel and Dimed (answered “No” for Question 2 above), would you have been more likely to read a book on a different topic/subject? 198 108 (54.5) 90 (45.5)
5. If you had been required to purchase Nickel and Dimed on your own, would you have been more likely to read it? 578 110 (19) 468 (81)
6. Has Nickel and Dimed been discussed in your GEP 100 (APS) class? 590 381 (65) 209 (35)
7. Excluding your GEP 100 (APS) class, has Nickel and Dimed been discussed in any of your other classes? 592 333 (56) 259 (44)
8. Have you had any discussions of Nickel and Dimed outside of your classes – in residence halls, with other students, with faculty, etc.? 592 166 (28) 426 (72)
9. Should the College continue with the Summer Reading Program next summer? 586 226 (39) 360 (61)

Table 2: All Instructors

Survey Question Total Responses Total Yes (%) Total No (%)
1. Are you an Academic Planning Seminar (APS)/GEP 100 instructor for the Fall 2004 semester? 67 21 (31) 46 (69)
2. If you are NOT an APS/GEP 100 instructor, do/did you teach a course with a majority of freshman students (greater than 50 percent) during the Fall 2004 semester? 47 21 (45) 26 (55)
3. Did you receive a copy of Nickel and Dimed? 67 53 (79) 14 (21)
4. Did you read Nickel and Dimed? 67 56 (84) 11 (16)
5. If you did read Nickel and Dimed, did you find the book informative? 55 51 (93) 4 (7)
6. If you did not read Nickel and Dimed, would you have been more likely to read a book on a different topic/subject? 13 4 (31) 9 (69)
7. If students were required to purchase Nickel and Dimed on their own, do you think they would be more likely to read it? 61 12 (20) 49 (80)
8. If you are an APS/GEP 100 instructor Fall 2004, have you incorporated Nickel and Dimed in your APS/GEP 100 class? 25 19 (76) 6 (24)
9. If you are an instructor for any class (other than APS/GEP 100), have you incorporated Nickel and Dimed into your classes (excluding APS/GEP 100)? 42 15 (36) 27 (64)
10. Did the subject matter of Nickel and Dimed make it difficult for you to incorporate the book into your classes? 57 19 (33) 38 (67)
11. Are you comfortable with someone else selecting a book for one of your classes? 57 30 (53) 27 (47)
12. Should we continue with the Summer Reading Program during summer 2005? 66 56 (85) 10 (15)
Survey Question Total Responses Summer (%) Orientation (%)
13. When should the Summer Reading Program book be distributed 60 51 (85) 9 (15)

Table 3: APS Instructors

Survey Question Total Responses Total Yes (%) Total No (%)
3. Did you receive a copy of Nickel and Dimed? 21 21 (100) 0 (0)
4. Did you read Nickel and Dimed? 21 21 (100) 0 (0)
5. If you did read Nickel and Dimed, did you find the book informative? 20 17 (85) 3 (15)
7. If students were required to purchase Nickel and Dimed on their own, do you think they would be more likely to read it? 21 0 (0) 21 (100)
8. If you are an APS/GEP 100 instructor Fall 2004, have you incorporated Nickel and Dimed in your APS/GEP 100 class? 21 18 (86) 3 (14)
9. If you are an instructor for any class (other than APS/GEP 100), have you incorporated Nickel and Dimed into your classes (excluding APS/GEP 100)? 4 2 (50) 2 (50)
10. Did the subject matter of Nickel and Dimed make it difficult for you to incorporate the book into your classes? 21 3 (14) 18 (86)
11. Are you comfortable with someone else selecting a book for one of your classes? 21 16 (76) 5 (24)
12. Should we continue with the Summer Reading Program during summer 2005? 21 18 (86) 3 (14)
Survey Question Total Responses Summer (%) Orientation (%)
13. When should the Summer Reading Program book be distributed? 21 17 (81) 4 (19)

Table 4: Non-APS Instructors

Survey Question Total Responses Total Yes (%) Total No (%)
2. If you are NOT an APS/GEP 100 instructor, do/did you teach a course with a majority of freshman students (greater than 50 percent) during the Fall 2004 semester? 46 20 (43) 26 (57)
3. Did you receive a copy of Nickel and Dimed? 46 32 (70) 14 (30)
4. Did you read Nickel and Dimed? 46 35 (76) 11 (24)
5. If you did read Nickel and Dimed, did you find the book informative? 35 34 (97) 1 (3)
6. If you did not read Nickel and Dimed, would you have been more likely to read a book on a different topic/subject? 11 3 (27) 8 (73)
7. If students were required to purchase Nickel and Dimed on their own, do you think they would be more likely to read it? 40 12 (30) 28 (70)
9. If you are an instructor for any class (other than APS/GEP 100), have you incorporated Nickel and Dimed into your classes (excluding APS/GEP 100)? 37 13 (35) 24 (65)
10. Did the subject matter of Nickel and Dimed make it difficult for you to incorporate the book into your classes? 36 16 (44) 20 (56)
11. Are you comfortable with someone else selecting a book for one of your classes? 36 14 (39) 22 (61)
12. Should we continue with the Summer Reading Program during summer 2005? 45 38 (84) 7 (16)
Survey Question Total Responses Summer (%) Orientation (%)
13. When should the Summer Reading Program book be distributed? 39 34 (87) 5 (13)

Appendix A: Comments Submitted by Instructors

  1. What kind of book is most appropriate for the Summer Reading Program?

    APS Instructors:
    • A book related to college issues. Nickel and Dimed was flawed in this regard.
    • Short, paperback, controversial
    • Current and provocative.
    • Contemporary issues definitely...something the students can relate to. Many of my students absolutely hated this book, the condescending tone of the author, coupled with the students' general lack of understanding or compassion for America's poor did little to open their minds to the crisis our country faces. It's a shame that this book did more to alienate students that to get them involved. A book based on 'real' research as opposed to her 'experiments' would go much father in meeting the goals of this program. What about 'Fast Food Nation' or something along those lines?
    • Topical issue books or novels that have sparked debate nationally or internationally
    • Topical books reflecting current events and issues of importance to society at large (say, on whether or not Social Security should be preserved in its current form)
    • The guidelines used for selection were fine, in paperback, etc. If most appropriate means popular, i.e. students will read it, it has to be a popular book. The story told should be engaging, something that people will want to read and finish.
    • One that is somewhat controversial, but at the same time is not dogmatic in its approach
    • Something that is reasonably current, that has multiple levels of meaning, that has multiple subjects, themes, and something designed for a 'general' reading public. Something like Henry Louis Gates' 'Colored People', which looks at family, race, faith, coming of age, etc.
    • I thought controversial books like the one chosen are appropriate.
    • An easily accessible book. A topic that allows discussion.
    • A book that is more realistic. A book that covers poverty as well as other issues, such as ethnicity and sexual preference.

    Non-APS Instructors
    • Something on social issues, like the one you had selected. I didn't know to incorporate it - this is new to me. The next time the opportunity arises, I will incorporate the summer reading into my Intro to Dance Class.
    • A book that is perhaps less ideological in its perspective. For example, Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg would make an excellent choice. A book of this nature which operates at a high intellectual level would be most appropriate.
    • I know of the book and think it was a WONDERFUL choice. I wish I had had the time to read it, maybe I'll get to it this summer. I don't think you should pick a book based on the degree to which it might fit into classes. Pick a good book and yes perhaps ask that the APS teachers discuss the book. It would be too redundant I think if all of my classes talked about the same book
    • For next year I would recommend a novel.
    • One with a broader portrait of human existence, preferably fiction with a universal theme that applies to many facets of adult life. If this has to be a contemporary text, one such as Life of Pi by Yann Martel would be great. Or, while, we're at stuck in this 'moral values' rut, Cider House Rules by John Irving. It was difficult, or near to impossible to work this book into Ancient World Art. It felt like a choice for a technical or community college - if you don't earn a degree, here's what will happen. The fact is, it will happen to them even with a degree, and doesn't provide them with the solace that an education provides precisely what any (even a high paying) job can't - peace of mind, a real value system, and the ability to educate oneself as life goes forth.
    • One that is balanced in that it provides a variety of viewpoints. For example, highly-partisan books (Franken, Limbaugh, Coulter, Moore) are problematic, unless students read one book from each perspective (and even that only invites two perspectives). For example, a better book on the same subject as Nickel & Dimed would be 'The Working Poor : Invisible in America,' by David Shipler. This book is willing to approach the topic in a way that sometimes puts it at odds with both left and right perspectives. That's much more democratic and much more likely to encourage students to think about the issue in a way that is more complete.
    • One that is not political.
    • Pick a book that does not flagrantly offend the religious sensibilities of a large number of people. And no, I am no red state zealot.
    • A more realistic book from both sides of a viewpoint. Nickel and Dimed had one person 'pretend' they were living on basic jobs that required no significant job skills and tried to say it's society's problem when a person has a choice to work for minimum wage based on past decisions that affect them.
    • Something that encourages students to think about relevant social issues.
    • Something less narrowly focused on the USA and its 'underclass' than Nickel & Dimed. I suspect most of our students already knew that working as a waitress or a salesperson 'sucks', and did not have to have their noses rubbed in the dirt by this unpleasant book. I also think that they are too ethnocentric already, and should better read something that relates to other parts of the world rather than confining them to their own backyards.
    • Ehrenreich’s 'Nickel and Dimed' is perfectly fine. While some may think that it is too politically left of center, I thought it was right on target. It is a very readable and interesting book. Even students who are working at low wage part-time jobs give very little thought to the nature of poverty in our country. This book is an eye-opener!
    • Contemporary social, economic, political issues
    • Hard to say. Something what would capture the imagination of young people. I prefer fiction, I believe, but something with relevance to modern societal issues.
    • Something that demonstrates cutting-edge thinking. Beyond whatever topic the book is about, I hope the SRP can help students learn to look at things from a new perspective
    • NICKEL AND DIMED was an excellent choice.
    • Amazing Grace (Kozol, 1995) is an excellent book and was under consideration last year. I have taught GEP 120 in prior semesters and used Amazing Grace successfully in my course as a reader/social conscious raising device. There are just too many books to list -- but basically -- something controversial seems best. Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale’ comes to mind as a good study of gender presented from a science fiction point of view, and something the students might find appealing.
    • A book that addresses them. A good first choice. Perhaps one that deals relates to our typical freshman - Catholic from a small town or suburb. Although I am not religious, I think we need to address that side more often. It's too bad that this year's selection didn't deal more with politics - e.g., 'The Natural'. Some year there should be a science selection.
    • Something accessible to the average incoming student. Something that isn't overtly cynical.
    • I thought that the book was a good choice--I read it in a day, although it would have been equally easy to read it in short bites. It was 'easy reading', with possibilities for overlap with many subject areas in courses.
    • One that challenges them to think critically and/or is a piece of great literature with an appropriate theme.
    • Something that will relate to the student's lives. Not technical. Something that could be integrated from different viewpoints.
    • A book that is not written to push a particular agenda: political or social. If this type of book is chosen - then two books, one from each perspective should be provided. Ideally, the book should be an example of great writing. Perhaps a historical novel that has won one or more awards, or has been on the best sellers list.
    • From my perspective as a sociology prof, the Ehrenreich book is perfect--it ties in easily to elementary sociological concepts, it's simultaneously germane to students' everyday lives (they all shop at wal-mart, most have had low wage jobs at one point or another), and it's written in a light, engaging style.
  2. What improvements do you think should be made to the Summer Reading Program?

    APS Instructors:
    • Choose a better book.
    • Establish a database of discussion questions and exercises to leverage ideas of teaching staff.
    • I think that it was nice that the students had the opportunity to hear the author speak (UB). I think this is a good follow up. Perhaps it might be helpful in the future to have the author speak at Brockport.
    • Pick a book that is intended for a larger audience or a younger audience, this book was written to inform the wealthy about the poor, that was a major flaw. The students saw through it. They know the poor would never read this book and this book would do nothing to help them. All it did was get them very pissed off at the author.
    • More pressure put on students to do something with the book - either at orientation or through APS.
    • Select a book with literary merit, a book that doesn't have an 'obvious' theme, a book that isn't so blatantly political (likely a big turn-off for most 18 year olds).
    • Have students involved in the selection process?
    • The discussion of the course needs to be embedded somewhere in the curriculum, and not APS. I think it should be the focus of every writing course.
    • Instructor guide for APS instructors was helpful this time but not necessary with the book. Perhaps a reading guide for the students who receive the book.
    • Have more people involved in selecting the book from diverse backgrounds.

    Non-APS Instructors:
    • Less elitism on the part of the faculty.
    • Post some background information concerning the text: why it was chosen, author's background, cultural historical background
    • If there is widespread use of the book, it would be good to hear about it through Statements or other venues. It has been very quiet this semester. Based on feedback from this survey, you can determine if there is sufficient justification for continuing the SRP. If I had to say yes or no right now, based on not much awareness of how the book was used inside or outside of the classroom, my answer would be no.
    • Organized reading groups throughout the fall, asking pointed questions about each chapter, a meeting of many minds, so to speak. Perhaps each week's session could be led by a faculty member on their specialty or the thing that most interested them about the text.
    • I don't think it's a particularly valuable idea at all.
    • Have some attempt at providing a balanced point-counterpoint approach. Perhaps two books on the same team; more use of a debate format with prominent speakers, etc.
    • I think it's not quite understood what you want, and maybe it's because I'm new here, the faculty and staff to do with the material. What is the purpose and goals you want to achieve with it?
    • I would have students purchase the book rather than the College.
    • Provide students with a list of possible books to read, not just one. Include a couple of literary classics, a couple of philosophical works, something on international affairs, something on the history of higher education, and maybe more. Urge the students to read several items on the list.
    • Series of lectures, discussions groups, other events needed
    • Some workshops on how to use the book in various classes.
    • I think a copy of the book should be sent to each incoming student during the summer, with a letter explaining the expectation that they read the book.
    • Maybe a listserve or chat room about the book
    • Stronger administrative/college wide commitment in incorporating the selected reading into the curriculum would be great. But really -- even if commitment wanes -- there is very little negative that can come out of asking freshmen to read a book.
    • A good start. I think that APS needs to be graded and uniformly have academic expectations - it's an awkward laughing stock at the moment. Make it a real freshman seminar - even if constricted to 1 credit. But now with most students taking remedial courses and APS, their freshman year is not a true college semester and doesn't do much to break the high school mentality. Perhaps the Summer Reading Program can do more to break that and return us to a mature program. The SRP selection needs to be more explicitly connected to the idea of general/liberal education.
    • Different book. Better incorporation into APS classes. Better incorporation into freshman classes overall.
    • Professors and other staff who are directly related to this program need to work together in order for it to work. All people need to be on the 'same page.'
    • Make it required for the APS instructors to teach it and to have a written paper assignment. If it is not part of that class, it should not be continued
    • Great Concept! Keep it up.
    • It's not hard for me to imagine a book being selected that didn't tie in well to the material covered in my SOC 100 course. In such a case, I would be inclined not to try and force the issue, assuming that students would deal with it in other classes where it was more germane.
    • Notifying new faculty.
  3. What would make it easier for you to incorporate the Summer Reading Program book into your classes?

    APS Instructors:
    • Specific lesson plans for APS instructors rather than vague suggestions
    • I was only able to devote a small portion of 1 APS class to it. The amount of material being covered in the APS class makes it difficult to squeeze another thing in. Based on feedback from students, they didn't see it was not as important as some of the other issues.
    • Related lectures and events on campus that can be incorporated into the APS curriculum would be great. This seemed like a very 'token' effort to talk about a very important issue. The college needs to make a stronger commitment to this if it's going to continue. IT has potential, but additional programming is needed to get the kids more involved personally in the issues we raise with them.
    • If the subject matter is of direct interest to the students, given their inclinations and career desires.
    • Select a topic that fits (I know this is impossible to do for all courses).
    • I might not be able to incorporate a book unless it was in an APS course.
    • A lecture or two, even by Brockport faculty, about aspects of the book, or a panel discussion during orientation. That would also raise the academic content and focus of orientation.
    • Having both Freshmen and incoming transfer students read the book so that it can be incorporated into the Fall entry level courses
    • I have incorporated the Summer Reading Program book into my class. I would suggest that the book be more informative and realistic.

    Non-APS Instructors:
    • The substantial number of readings in my courses are set in stone and generally cannot be changed, nor is their time to add others. I teach a specific subject matter. I can never incorporate books selected by others. Expecting anyone to do so is silly.
    • Nothing, if the book fits I'll incorporate it, if it doesn't I won't. This should not be the criteria on which a book is chosen.
    • Knowing that my students had read the book
    • The topic of struggling to survive on a minimum amount of income fit into one of the themes of my course. Keep the topic or theme general enough so that it is useful across the curriculum.
    • First of all, knowing that is what you want me to do with it. I teach seniors, which I think the material is very important for all students, not just freshmen to know. In fact, the seniors are probably more aware of the issues you’re trying to raise with this program.
    • Nothing, really, because I currently teach almost exclusively juniors and seniors.
    • My course is a natural science course that does not really mesh well with Nickel, etc.. A book addressing the societal impact of science, its use and misuses might be relevant, but I can't think of any at this point.
    • I was able to include a brief discussion of the book in my Intro to Anthropology course when we got to a discussion of social class and caste, toward the end of the semester.
    • Obviously, content relevant to the type of class I teach.
    • I should not have taken this survey. I only teach upper division classes. There should be a way to indicate this early in the survey and a way to exit. The summer reading program seems like a good idea and feedback is good to get, but mine is useless.
    • Related readings
    • The knowledge that each student knows what I'm talking about, that they've heard about the program and that they've received a copy of the book with a note explaining the expectation that it be read before school starts.
    • Give me a copy of the book and ample time to read it
    • To know early enough to order it for fall classes. I'll choose on a year-to-year basis depending upon how the selection fits into my course's themes.
    • Because I teach physical science courses that have no freshman, I would be unable to use any book that is chosen--but I will continue to read them!
    • I teach only one course, a rather technical one in sensation and perception. It is difficult to imagine a summer reading book that would fit very well into that context. Beside, I almost never have freshmen in that course.
    • I would have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether it was appropriate.
    • I teach a performance class, so it is difficult. But I was looking for a script for 'Nickel & Dimed' to integrate into the women's center's activism conference.
    • If I was teaching freshmen, I would definitely try to incorporate the book.
    • Being notified of the summer reading program. I still have no idea what Nickel and Dimed is.