An Unusually Cheeky Summer Assignment

Many colleges assign incoming freshmen a book to read over the summer. The original idea was to give new students a shared taste of what intellectual life is like. Over the years, the books came to reflect the dominant faculty obsession with race-class-gender group grievance and the idea that America is a grossly unfair nation—Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, for instance, was a popular choice. And as students seemed to grow more averse to serious reading, the assigned books got shorter and simpler, and often included upscale comic books like Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus.
Now The University of California at Berkeley has assigned freshmen a non-reading task instead of a book—they are to return a cotton swab with cells from the inside of their cheeks. The university is doing this, according to Inside Higher Ed, because “a reading assignment didn’t make sense for something as cutting-edge and personalized as genetic analysis.”
But of course that analysis will be done in labs by non-freshmen. Instead of spending hours on a book, each student will have to commit three seconds or less to the assignment—a major time-saving gain for busy high-school graduates. Alix Schwartz, director of academic planning for the undergraduate division of the university’s college of letters and science, sees another advantage for a cheek swab over a book: “If we assigned them a book, it would be out-of-date by the time they read it.” Last year freshmen were assigned Michael Pollan’s account of food chains, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was pretty good at the time, but sadly out of date now, along with Plato, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Ehrenreich, comic books and oh so many other once-pertinent works.
Schwartz said the freshman swabs are a one-time thing in the freshman program. “Who knows what creative thing the deans will come up with next?,” she said. We have no idea, but we certainly hope it will further reduce the summertime intellectual demands made of new students.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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