Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Reading List Suggestions for Entering College Students
Jane Kotulka is preparing a college prep reading list for students at Bassett High School in Bassett, VA. Her query was forwarded to our faculty list:
I am working on a college prep reading list for our students. We want to prepare them for their college career. Do you have a freshman reading list for incoming students or for freshman English classes? If so, could you send me a copy? Thank you for your time and interest in helping our students.
What would you recommend? Why? Does your present institution have such a reading list? What’s on it, if so?
I’m assuming you mean for literature purposes. I could give you a reading list that *I’d* like high school students to read, but it would probably be a computer science and linguistics one and would bore everyone here. There’s fiction I think is significant, though, even to these more technical disciplines.
Oh, it wouldn’t bore me, I assure you.
Well, for linguistics I’d definitely recommend that all incoming high school students read Fromkin et al’s “Introduction to Language”, which is highly accessible, general, and entertaining, and I started it in high school as well. As much as I suspect people may not like him here, I’d still recommend The Language Instinct by Pinker. Juan Uriagereka’s Rhyme and Reason is written for the scientifically-educated non-linguist, but it may work for geekier high school students. The above is very syntactically-oriented: Semantics by Saeed is a good introductory book taught to junior university students, but parts of it are good for everyone.
For computer science, it’s harder to recommend something, since a lot of the basic ideas in computer science can be best imparted by first *doing* prior to learning the theory, as much as I am more a fan of the latter rather than the former. And a lot of the best educational material is on the Internet---actually very few people use printed books in computer science departments for much of anything. If I had to recommend books, it would be for very advanced high school students. Some of Sebesta’s Concepts of Programming Languages would hardly be a bad idea. Lewis and Papadimitriou’s Elements of the Theory of Computation would be for mathematically-inclined high-school students, but it does start off introducing the basics: it’s a little dry though. Actually even *better* would be Discrete Mathematics and Its Applications by Rosen---something I read as a university freshman, for once. Programming Prolog by Clocksin and Mellish, if administered early enough, would save students from the trap of being unable to think of anything but imperative and OO programming in Java. Actually, I think much of the CS curriculum is taught in the wrong order.
As for fiction, for linguistics I would recommend a large amount of C.J. Cherryh’s work. (I mostly read SF and fantasy.) For CS, even though I didn’t really like the Cryptonomicon, I’d recommend that and a number of other books by Neal Stephenson.
Are you bored yet?
Programming Prolog by Clocksin and Mellish, if administered early enough, would save students from the trap of being unable to think of anything but imperative and OO programming in Java.
I had assumed that many places start off with SICP, is that wrong?
A class (it would have to be a class, and a very long one, at that) in which the students wrote a reasonably nontrivial but not too ambitious program several times over in several different programming paradigms (say, using LISP/Ocaml, Haskell, C, FORTH, and Smalltalk) would be pretty awesome. But I’m just saying that because I wish I had had such a class available to me.
There may be some that start with SICP, but I haven’t heard of them, except MIT itself. I do recommend starting with alternative languages, but nowadays everyone starts with Java. I’m a teaching assistant for a 300level course introducing students to alternative ways of thinking about programs (with alt. languages), and *un*training them from Java habits is very, very annoying.
I recommend Prolog because I’m *also* a linguistics person Prolog is more widely used than Scheme nowadays in linguistics, when people aren’t using Perl for the empiricist stuff that’s taken over applied computational linguistics (where all the money is---look at Google!). I just think that logic/declarative programming is way more fun than functional programming. I mean, backtracking? That’s just coooool.
I’m not convinced that LISP and OCaml can really be talked about in the same breath. While the overall paradigm for OCaml is also functional, OCaml is really a mishmash of everything. Also it has the very interesting property of being both statically and implicitly typed---LISP is totally dynamic.
Isn’t it fun hijacking a thread on a lit blog for techie talk?
Oh, I was just thinking that OCaml seems to be the big impure functional language with an object system these days, while lisp was the big impure functional language with an object syste (and what an object system! not that I’m familiar with CLOS except by faint emanations of its reputation) of years past.
I just think that logic/declarative programming is way more fun than functional programming. I mean, backtracking? That’s just coooool.
My few experiences with Prolog have been quite confusing, though it certainly seems interesting. I remember the first time I wrote a small system using baby CPS for backtracking purposes, and I was completely psyched when I got it working.
OCaml is way less pure in some ways than LISP, I think. It has a great deal more syntactic sugar. At the same time, it’s a better representation for the relationships between syntax and semantics and higher-order logic. It’s a typed lambda calculus, unlike LISP which is untyped. As I understand it, ML originally existed for theorem-proving.
Prolog requires a completely different mindset. You don’t write programs in Prolog---you write what you think the characteristics of the program ought to be and the relationships between the data in the program. Then the Prolog inference engine follows your description and deduces potentially every possible program that matches your description---one after another, as you reject its hypotheses.
Backtracking is what it does when it realizes an inference was incorrect. You make it find another solution by telling it explicitly to backtrack. Finding multiple solutions in other languages is not usually a natural part of those languages but instead requires iteration or recursion, etc.
I find it fascinating that the only “literature” books recommended in this thread are SF. Don’t any of the lit folks have any recs?
Presumably this all comes out of a reluctance to proscribe much of anything. But still, I would think that any student thinking about majoring in English should have a few bits of background.
At least 1 or 2 Shakespeare Plays
A general knowledge of Greek myths (anyone got a specific book to recommend?)
The Bible (I don’t know ... maybe Genesis and one of the Gospels?)
A Room of One’s Own
Well, it’s a start anyway.
"I find it fascinating that the only “literature” books recommended in this thread are SF. Don’t any of the lit folks have any recs?”
Jawohl, that’s because I diverted the thread to a techie direction. We don’t read much more literature than SF among us folks.
I’ll bet some of the lit folks here have some SF recs too :) Or would have.
Mandos, there is no such thing as lit folk or whatever-it-is-you’re-talking-about folk.
If it didn’t contain such poor intellectual history in a number of places, I’d want to recommend Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Philosophy is definitely the weak area for almost all incoming freshmen.
Every non-geek student should try to read and understand Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold.
Geeks can skip it since they seem to be born with all this info and this way of thinking already wired in.
The less interested you are in science and technology the more important it is you read it. It’s well written and probably easier to understand than most high-school science texts.
"Mandos, there is no such thing as lit folk or whatever-it-is-you’re-talking-about folk.”
Oh? I do recall that this blog is sponsored by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. This suggests to me that there is a community focused on a particular interest here, as opposed to say, a hypothetical blog sponsored by, say, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.
For instance, there are Names that are probable familiar to all the regulars here that are not really familiar to me, and vice versa. So how do you want me to express the thought?
Another item I wanted to mention here is the necessity for random browsing in libraries, preferably large libraries. That activity in and of itself is probably more valuable than any given reading list.
Overreliance on the general internet as an information-gathering source is a significant problem with the students I’ve taught.
Is the goal of the reading list to acquaint students with a range of material with which college-bound students should be acquainted, or to provide readings the discussion of which in class and assignments for which will prepare students for the work they’ll be doing in college? (Or both in various proportions, or yet a third, etc.)
Either way, I’ll vote for Notes from Underground. Short and it has a great opening line.
Has there been a single mention, a single recommendation of an in-depth book of criticism or “theory” to college bound high schoolers? If not, very curious. I would recommend Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, and his recent Introduction to the English Novel.
Also, for general readers especially:
A Reader’s Manifesto by B.R. Meyers - not a giant book but provocative and very accessible.
And Jane Smiley’s reflections and 100+ book overview in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.
And, of course! my political novel site.
That’s a good suggestion, Tony. Both Valve founder John Holbo and several regular commenters are big fans of the Eagleton book.
Let’s see: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Color Purple, Lord of the Rings, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Black Boy, Ethan Frome, Silas Marner....
> That’s a good suggestion, Tony. Both Valve founder John Holbo
> and several regular commenters are big fans of the Eagleton book.
I can’t say that I’m surprised to hear that some scholars appreciate an intelligent book like Eagleton’s Literary Theory. His Introduction to the English Novel is even more of a gem, in my opinion, and far from an Introduction in certain ways as well, as others have noted.
What I am surprised at is that at a prompt for important basic college level reading material at a scholarly literary website, there have been virtually no suggestions of basic critical and/or theoretical books that might represent, indicate, or introduce the professional field(s). Is the field that dead to everyone at a basic level? Or is everyone that dead to introducing students and/or lay readers to the field?
Tony: If people do come up with a list, I hope they send it back in time a few years to the lecturers at my university. There was no literary theory as such until third year (!). Mostly courses consisted of discussion of individual texts, maybe with some context thrown in—an unholy mix of historicism and new criticism, I guess. It meant that there was a wealth of experience to apply the theory on once we finally learned it, but in retrospect that whole period seems like fumbling around in the dark.
For what it’s worth, I second (third? fifth?) the Eagleton book, and wish I’d had it in first year. Maybe that Abrams “Orientation of Critical Theories” essay, too, which seems to be in just about every anthology of criticism ever compiled. Any anthology would be fairly useful, now that you mention it, if just for idle browsing. The Norton, maybe, which at least has the virtue of extreme length. It’s a little like browsing a large library, but much more convenient to carry around.
Norman, I don’t think your experience is atypical by any stretch, unfortunately, and the situation is compounded by the problem that, in my view, quite a number of the most important books of criticism are scarcely used by anyone, which has to do with the depoliticization of the academy - that is, the phony or overall status quo politicization.
“Theory” ≈ High-Octane Haiku by John Epigram.
That’s the book I would like to see written on the matter.
And heaven forbid it be written at an intense introductory level that someone would be at all tempted to pick up who might otherwise think that “theory” is something of a careerist pastime that is often willfully obscurant and decidedly impenetrable for purposes of mystifying and aggrandizing a seeming intellectual authority for reasons of securing a niche in a superfluous hierarchy of privilege.