I did not start working in a university until quite late in my career, and my route reflects wider trends within academia. After an arts degree at St Andrews, I worked in publishing. Marrying a soldier, the incessant moves and arrival of four children made life as a full-time employee in one place difficult. Handily, the publishing industry has long relied on external suppliers, and I juggled a freelance role for many years. In the process, my objectivity about the industry grew, and this led to the research and writing of a series of books on publishing – which swiftly became set texts for the newly established discipline of Publishing Studies. Demand grew as students (and notably their supporters) became more interested in degrees that dangled the prospect of employment. I followed my books, co-founding Kingston’s MA Publishing in 2006.
I’ve long had a passion for encouraging reading for pleasure. Research has consistently identified the benefits; how reading correlates with happiness, health, success, empathy – and wherever we were posted I would set up a book club, offer talks to local schools and libraries about why reading matters and give books as presents (later negotiated by our children to book tokens). With support from Southern Arts and three library authorities, I established Well Worth Reading, a fiction recommendation scheme that is now part of The Reading Agency. In 2011, I founded www.readingforce.org.uk a charity which encourages Services families separated by distance or disturbance to remain in touch through sharing books.
At Kingston University, while I have reminded students of their responsibility to widen the audience for reading (rather than just concentrating on titles that already appeal to them and their pals), the opportunity to develop shared reading arose relatively recently. I discovered Kingston runs a scheme to encourage academics and students to embark on a research project together – and I suggested we investigate pre-arrival shared reading schemes; offered fairly routinely in US universities. Research has shown that those who take part are more likely to enrol, feel settled – and less likely to drop out.
We began by investigating our market and a survey was sent to the five largest first-year undergraduate cohorts, one per faculty. We asked them about their leisure habits, involvement in reading for pleasure – and whether they liked the sound of pre-arrival shared reading. The responses were predominating positive, with vastly more enthusiasm for reading than anticipated. Our VC encouraged us to go ahead, awarded a budget for book purchase, and the first KU Big Read was launched.
We had a special edition of KU alumnus Nick Hornby’s About a Boy produced (our logo on front, signed letter from VC inside, questions to prompt discussion in back) and it was sent to every under- and postgraduate student about to start at Kingston in August/September 2016.
The response was immediate and enthusiastic. The students took to social media to thank the university for a ‘present’ before even reaching Kingston and talked about feeling ‘welcomed’, ‘expected’ – and ‘less nervous’. The events we organised were very well attended: book discussions during Welcome Week; two author talks after which Hornby signed a huge number of copies; a balloon debate when staff discussed how the title related to their professional and personal interests.
What was less expected was the staff response. We had made the book available to everyone, but take-up was significantly greater than expected and we had to reprint twice. The HR department used it for staff induction and the entire Finance Department read it for team-building. Reception staff enthused to those waiting and library teams directed visitors to the displays mounted on every campus. An Extreme Reading competition on social media was much enjoyed.
Polling staff and students afterwards, 73% of student responders and 60% of staff had discussed the book, often with various categories of individual. 86% of student responders and 74% of staff thought the scheme an effective initiative for new students. Even those who had not read the book talked about it and turned up for events. As we’ve just chosen our shortlist for the second #KUBigRead, perhaps it’s a good time to reflect on what we’ve learned.
Academics often operate on a ‘need to know’ basis, expunging from their memory more information on process than they think they can hold – or want to retain. Through managing KUBigRead I have become aware of the capillary network that underpins us year-round; silently supporting the experience of staff and students. The library network is an obvious example, but others include staff and student engagement teams, data management colleagues (invaluable for tracking longer-term impacts) and support staff who move between sites. Involve these groups and you gain an immense traction – as well as, pleasingly, a vast nodding acquaintance.
The 2015 book choice was made quickly, in order to move ahead. This time we have sought to involve the whole community. We asked staff and students for suggestions and loaded the 100+ received into a database. Again working with students, we considered the various factors that would make a good choice, weighted for which mattered most, and developed an associated algorithm. Result? Interest in both process and list has been really strong. The six titles that emerged will now be read by a cross-organisational committee, and already we have enough volunteers for a similar panel in 2017.
I suspect however that our most significant contribution has been wider demonstration of the value of involving students in work-based learning. As a profession-orientated discipline, we’ve long offered supervised placements and industry-based dissertation supervision, confident these are opportunities for students to grow and develop employability skills. Working with students on the KUBigRead, and encouraging them to speak for it whenever possible, has put a spotlight on their energy and entrepreneurialism. One of the initial volunteers, newly graduated, is now employed to work on the scheme – and she is a huge asset in further embedding. Right now, it’s roll on #KUBR2!
Alison Baverstock is Associate Professor of Publishing at Kingston University and Director of The KU Big Read