Whence Reading Period?

Students should ponder how best to spend reading period

Last Wednesday, at a Committee on Undergraduate Education meeting, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris proposed a plan that would completely restructure reading period, the prized week before finals most notable for its high number of both paper deadlines and disrobed freshmen. The proposal would eliminate one of these two hallmarks by moving all final project and paper deadlines back to exam period so that they coincide with the week allotted for final exams. Under the proposal, professors would be required to clearly identify the designated due dates at the beginning of the semester, and students would be able to use reading period in the manner that its name suggests.

Harris’s idea has obvious pros and cons, and students on campus are likely to have conflicting views on the matter. While some will argue that giving students more time to complete assignments can be nothing but a good thing, others can retort that they will be unable to successfully manage their time with the newfound agglomeration of deadlines.

We cannot have any idea which scenario is likely to be true for the most students. And considering that students were not involved in formulating the new proposal, the College likely has a similar paucity of information on the matter.

As such, this presents the unique opportunity for campus-wide reflection and discourse. Student opinion should be sought out in designing any new schedule, and students should think about how they value the final weeks of their term and how they envision that period restructuring in the future. We hope that the administration takes into account student input before making any top-down changes. Any alteration of the finals period schedule will have the ostensible purpose of eliminating stress and relieving anxiety in students. This is a noble goal, but students must be consulted in order for it to have a reasonable chance of succeeding.

Over 50 years ago, we opined on the utility of reading period. We recognize now, as we recognized then, that reading periods have the dangerous potential to function as “cramming orgies.” The fundamental flaw in the implementation of the period remains “unpleasantry in human nature.” We must combat this “unpleasantry” by cogitating about it, as students, as faculty, and as administrators. We must heed the words inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: “Know thyself.” The administration can only make a change in good faith once it understands the processes that will positively affect the most students on campus.

The debate over reading period is just beginning, and it poses several questions, both philosophical and logistical. On the more pragmatic end of the spectrum, it is important to examine the role that Harvard faculty will play in any new regime. For the most part, professors here do an excellent job in being communicative and in providing flexibility to students working on important assignments. It would be tragic if the imposition of a new end-of-term regimen in any way hinders this ethic of student assistance. If the goal of a restructured reading period is to give students more time and flexibility in composing final papers and projects, we would hope that professors honor that goal by releasing final assignments well in advance of the new deadlines. We are all ultimately here to learn; any measure to alter the administrative process must keep that in mind. And any effort that increases the facility of receiving a valuable education will be nothing but propitious for the erudition that lies ahead.