Surprisingly, although students in recent years have complained that too many courses meet through Reading Period, the system actually originated as an antidote to too many classes--at the request of, not the students, but the faculty.
The University first instituted Reading Period in 1927, when it was noticed that instructors were spending so much time with their students that they had little time in which to pursue their own studies and research.
According to the November 21, 1927 President's Report, "... a danger was felt of losing our best men if they could not be given a better opportunity for these things ... it was suggested that certain periods of the term should be marked off in which instructions of all kinds would cease ..."
The first two Reading Periods encompassed six weeks--two and a half weeks after Christmas vacation, and three and a half weeks before spring finals. During this time, the only lecture classes given were those with predominately freshman enrollments.
Harvard was, apparently, the first institution to conceive of Reading Period. President A. Lawrence Lowell noted proudly, if a little uneasily. "Certainly we have made a very large departure from American traditions of higher education."
Surprisingly, Reading Period was never designed for review. The initial recommendation urges instructors to "... make appropriate provision for work on the part of their students" during the period. It goes on to note. "Some fears have been expressed that these free periods given to the student for reading may be often turned into them into unearned vacations, free from all work, or may be used wholly for 'grinding up' the reading that should have been done in the previous 12 weeks ... Undoubtedly, the danger to those who are weak in will and purpose is considerable, and some such men will fall by the wayside ... [however] the majority will cause no anxiety."
Indeed, in a later report the president took exception to other colleges' descriptions of the system as a 'pre-examination reading period.' Lowell writes, "... as if the object were to provide a chance for review. Curiously enough, this was never contemplated ... and, in fact, so much reading was assigned that there was no time for review." He adds that the library reading rooms were crowded "as never before."
Since 1927, Reading Period has changed, among other ways, by shortening down to just two weeks. Perhaps the most noticeable departure from its 1927 guidelines, however, is the increased number of lectures given in more recent years. The last study on Reading Period, conducted in 1979 by the Committee on Housing and Undergraduate Life, was a response to student complaints that too many classes were held during the time period.
The study, based in part on a questionnaire answered by professors of the one hundred most popular courses, revealed that 52 percent of the courses met during Reading Period as originally scheduled, to cover new material. The natural sciences headed the list with 63 percent of their classes meeting; 57 percent of the language classes met; 47 percent of the social sciences, and 29 percent of other humanity courses. Of the courses surveyed which met to consolidate material and review, 33 percent were in the social sciences, 29 percent were humanity courses, and 14 percent were languages.
In the student portion of the survey, 78 percent of the sampling said they used Reading Period to organize and learn previously presented material; 82 percent were catching up on old material; and 79 percent were also writing papers or other assignments.
Although no follow-up survey has been conducted. Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III says that in response to the complaint and subsequent report, fewer classes have been meeting in recent years.