a college student sitting on a bench reading a book while wearing headphones and guarding his bike

Extra Credit

How to Read Like a College Student

A database tracks the most read books and authors on college campuses, and the lists are, let’s say, well worn

Humans are social animals, and we want to know what other humans are doing (and judge them accordingly). That’s why newspapers publish bestseller lists, Billboard tracks the most popular songs across all kinds of genres, and social media push out #trendingtopics.  

Now it’s possible to see what’s hot on college campuses—at least when it comes to what students are assigned to read. (And really, what could be hotter?)

The Open Syllabus Project (OSP) collects and analyzes millions of syllabi from around the world and publishes a list of the titles and authors that most frequently appear on course syllabi. The OSP primarily scrapes the internet to find its reading lists, and it currently has more than 6 million of them. Machine learning tools pull the information needed to create lists by field.  

The most assigned book in the database is The Elements of Style, the slim, ubiquitous volume on how to write “good” by William Strunk and E. B. White. The most assigned author: William Shakespeare.

Here’s how the two lists look:

Top 10 most assigned books in the database:

  1. The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E. B. White
  2. A Writer’s Reference, Diana Hacker
  3. Calculus, James Stewart
  4. Human Anatomy and Physiology, Elaine Nicpon Marieb
  5. Republic, Plato
  6. The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  7. A Pocket Style Manual, Diana Hacker
  8. Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  9. Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle
  10. Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes

The 10 most assigned authors in the database:

  1. William Shakespeare
  2. Plato
  3. Diana Hacker
  4. Aristotle
  5. Michel Foucault
  6. Karl Marx
  7. James Stewart
  8. Elaine Nicpon Marieb
  9. Margaret L. Lial
  10. John Stuart Mill
a college student sitting on a bench reading a book while wearing headphones and guarding his bike

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What jumps out the most on the list of assigned books is how many writing manuals are on it. The top two books and number seven are writer’s guides, which are most commonly assigned in English composition and rhetoric courses but can also appear on syllabi in other disciplines. Just 2 books are textbooks, but—most surprisingly—philosophy texts account for 4 of the top 10 texts. Only one novel makes the list.

Literature does a little better on the list of assigned authors, with the most well-known writer in the world at the top. But here too philosophy is the most well-represented discipline: Plato, Aristotle, Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill are all very popular in higher education classrooms. The other authors on this list wrote reference and textbooks. No one on that list is still living.

The other thing to note about these lists is how many of the top 10 titles and authors commonly assigned today would have likely been on these lists 20, 50, even 100 years ago. 

As Ezra Pound once said of poetry, the classics are “news that stays news.”