Where to Learn

“The human relationships you form in unstructured time with your roommates and friends,” writes Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ‘68, “may have a stronger influence on your later life than the content of some of the courses you are taking.” This advice, in his letter to the Class of 2005 entitled “Slow Down,” is some of the best that an administrator could give to an incoming Harvard student. Lewis is right, of course, and deserves praise for asking you, a group of inevitably ambitious, workaholic first-years, to slow down and smell the roses.

Unfortunately, for most Harvard students, preserving some leisure time is easier said than done. The College provides mind-blowing opportunities, but as first-years will discover next week when they get their first glimpse at their course syllabi, it also provides an immense amount of reading.

Before this degenerates into a lazy junior complaining about a large workload, let me make a couple of things clear. The writing component of Harvard courses is fine—maybe even a little light. Writing is the most important skill anyone can learn in college, and some of the humanities courses would be better off scrapping their superficial response papers and adding a few 10-page in-depth assignments.

But the amount of reading that most professors assign is, simply put, impossible to do. Some are worse culprits than others, but it is rare to find a humanities or social science course with a manageable reading load. I enjoy reading 100 pages each night—but few students can read 100 pages a night for each class.

Of course, Harvard being Harvard, people don’t like to admit that they’re behind on the reading. As an eager first-year, I too proudly proclaimed that I was doing all the reading. By the end of the first semester, I wasn’t. Each semester since then, I’ve resolved to do all the reading—and failed every time.

There is no easy solution. Until professors realistically reevaluate their reading lists, students will continue to be confronted by more reading than they can do—at least, without becoming speed-reading hermits. Some of the more perceptive and generous teaching fellows will tell you which readings are essential and which are extraneous, but you can’t count on it.

It’s depressing, because most of the books on the lists are incredibly interesting and engaging. There’s nothing worse than the feeling of bittersweet regret that comes around Reading Period when you read a particularly good selection and finally understand what your professor and teaching fellow meant when they were talking about Kant’s categorical imperative seven weeks ago.

But rest assured—everyone else is in the same boat. In high school, most Harvard students did all the work, and did it excellently. Here, if you get in the mindset that you’re going to read every last book on the list, you’ll end up driving yourself crazy. I don’t mean to suggest that you neglect your classes—just that you take the reading lists with a grain of salt.

So here’s my advice, to add to that of Dean Lewis: Find a few friends, from your entryway or your section, who are interested in forming a study group for a course. Have each person summarize some of the material and pool your knowledge. Get together the night before a test, order pizza, and discuss the reding. Not only will you absorb more of the important information more quickly than you would have otherwise, but the process of digesting the information, in an informal setting, will teach you more about the material (and about your fellow students) than a section ever could.

Most of you will figure this all out by spring semester anyway, but it is important not to try to be a superhero in the fall. Learn your way around Cambridge and Boston, go to a Red Sox game with your roommates and learn to sail on the Charles. If you burn out first semester, you may find it difficult to regain the motivation that got you here.

“Give yourself a break,” Lewis writes. “Take a few hours just to go to an athletic event, a movie, a theatrical production on campus, a rock concert downtown. Sit outside and read a novel, go to a place of worship, find a pleasant place off-campus where you can be alone with your thoughts. Hang out with your friends, play frisbee, keep up the dining hall conversation till everyone else has left. It won’t hurt, and will probably only help, your academic performance.” His advice is valuable; don’t let mammoth reading lists prevent you from taking it.

David M. DeBartolo ’03, a government concentrator in Lowell House, is associate editorial chair of The Crimson.