CATHARSIS AT CAMBRIDGE

3. Reading Period or Rest Period?

Although a great many under graduates have come to regard it as a pre-examination breathing spell, the reading period was originally adopted, back in 1927-28, in order to provide a greatly overtaxed Harvard faculty with a periodic relief from formal academic duties, which they might devote to independent study. The Faculty, required to assume a double burden in teaching at both undergraduate and graduate schools, were able to use advantageously a period of three weeks each term, like the famed "long vacations" of the English universities. Upperclassmen, faced with general examinations, welcomed the spring reading period especially; and it was felt that the new institution would fit in well the tutorial system, which had expanded lustily since its inception in 1914-15.

In its seventeen years of existence, the reading period has grown greatly. Beginning in the Department of History, Government, and Economics, it was rapidly expanded to become part of all save laboratory courses. At first, the only objection raised by Harvard undergraduates to the system was that some professors, thoroughly enthused with their subject, assigned as much as 1500 or 1600 pages of reading for their courses alone; but such difficulties were soon eliminated, and the innovation became an established part of the Harvard educational system.

Under the strain of war exigencies which have shortened by half the average undergraduate career, it has proven necessary to limit the reading period to a fortnight. But undergraduate criticism has centered not so much about the curtailed time of the period as about the increasing disorganization and waste of valuable opportunity that have characterized the system of late, even before the war. Unlike the "500 or 600 pages" of reading matter per course that lent meaning and value to the period in earlier years, reading period assignments increasingly are marked by their shortness. Too often have undergraduates been able to complete the entire assignment for the period in its first few days and, lacking the stimulus of assignments atuned to ability, have in many cases either wasted the remainder of the time or have used it to complete regular work purposely neglected in anticipation of the pre-exam 'breather'. More serious than this is the tendency for reading period assignments to be marred by disorganization and sterility--Already lacking the correlation and guidance afforded by faculty instruction, the reading period had failed often focus attention upon particular and specific aspects of the subject, has left courses hanging in the aid and left the undergraduate with a sense of intellectual frustration. Instead of synthesis and summation, the reading period in many cases has been utilized merely to conclude as course.

What is needed is a greater correlation of tutorial work with the reading period. Instead of permitting tutorial assignments to lapse during the period, there should be a much higher degree of cooperation between student and tutor. Brevity of formal reading period assignments becomes an advantage if tutorial assignments permit adjustment to the ability of the individual student. The tutor should aid the student to conceive of the subject as a whole: at the same time, he should permit and help the student investigate those phases of the subject of greatest interest and value to him. Permitting a choice of reading period assignments was a healthy step towards this latter; direction of tutorial reading and requirement of tutorial themes will be of even greater value.

The reading period has proven a valuable addition to Harvard education, but for some courses its potentialities have remained unexploited. Wiser organization o assignments, greater correlation with tutorial work, achievement of summation coupled with elaboration of specific aspects of the subject--all should the reading period to bring all of its potential advantage to Harvard education.

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