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The Reading Period Blues


By Eric Pulier

THERE ARE students at Harvard who are quite happy with the academic schedule. There are also people at Harvard whose heads, which normally store important stuff such as thinking goo, are currently filled with a substance of no merit whatsoever. I don't mean to imply that there's a correlation between these two types of students--although a correlation obviously exists. I'm just saying that maybe the time has come for us rationally thinking people to sit down with the people who like the current academic schedule and beat them senseless.

There is only one reason that our academic schedule could be maintained year after year by non-sadistic adults: tradition. Tradition plays a large part in every facet of university life, and rightly so. After all, without traditions there would be no way to defend many of the annoying and anachronistic practices of daily life.

For instance, my term bill last semester--$8000, plus two dollars for lost keys, one dollar for the library, and another two dollars to cover the cost of giving me a copy of my transcript. Now, no intensely self-respecting institution such as Harvard would ever demean itself so far as to nickel-and-dime the same students who pay over $16,000 each year to live in overcrowded dorms. Unless tradition was involved.

The tradition of nickel-and-diming the students began at Harvard's inception. The then-president of the University decided, as an April Fools joke, to pretend to charge the students for lost i.d. cards, keys, transcript requests, and every other little thing imaginable. When the president then passed away under mysterious circumstances during a closed Board of Overseers meeting, the information that the charges were meant as a joke somehow never surfaced, though today everyone at Harvard is aware of the real story. The tradition of inflicting petty charges on students has become such a part of the Harvard mystique over the years that no one would ever think of changing it now.

Similiarly, the Harvard academic calender exists because of tradition. The schedule began as a simple punishment to the Harvard Class of 1690 for their disgusting habit of putting the letter "e" at the end of otherwise tolerable words such as "tavern" and "shop." The students persisted for many years, and by the time the syntactic aberration was no longer vogue the Harvard schedule was already firmly imbedded.

SO IT stands: While our smirk-ridden contemporaries leave for vacation for weeks on end without anything to do but say things like, "Hey, Pulier, want to...ooops...that's right you still have to take finals...tee hee...," we at Harvard have approximately 10 days of "vacation" during which the stench of academia looms ever present.

"Ah," the fools in the audience are now saying. "But what you neglect to take into account is Reading Period. We at Harvard have an allotted period during which the students are given ample time to study for exams, and this more than makes up for your silly little gripe."

If I could only get my hands on you--the thinker of the above quote--oh, how I would hurt you so. You are vile. Listen to me--the relation between a system's theory and its actual practice is often as secure as a pre-wealth student at recruiting time.

The official word on Reading Period, as we all know, is that it's the time after vacation and before finals during which classes do not meet and students may devote themselves to studying for finals. If this were true then our "vacation" would not be so bad--we would return to Harvard for a period of time expressly delegated to preparing for exams. Under this system, much of the pressure of having exams after Christmas would be alleviated.

Yes, if Reading Period actually existed, things might be a bit different. For one thing, I would have no violent fantasies of force-feeding broccoli-cheese pasta to those who condone the current schedule. Yet, the sad fact remains that for many students, Reading Period does not exist. Not even slightly.

MOST STUDENTS have classes that meet right through reading period. The professors say that they "need the time" to present all the extra material that could not be crammed into the official semester. In addition, a majority of students have multiple term papers due during this time. The professors' attitude is that if you want to study for finals over "reading period," then you'd better do your papers during "vacation." I think these people ought to have their "brains" checked.

For some reason, perhaps gas leaks in university buildings, many professors believe that they may simply ignore the rules of Reading Period without deference to their students' upcoming final exams. The result is that for many the period after break is even more academically pressured than the normal semester, and by the time finals period arrives, students are left with little time to prepare.

The obvious solution would be to schedule another "vacation" after reading period in order for students to prepare for exams. But professors would just assign additional papers due when we return. If the trend continues, with professors maintaining a negligible respect for student concerns, it won't be long before classes will meet and papers will be due during Finals Period.

Why not change the schedule then? The main reason is that the Harvard calendar is created at least four years in advance. If anyone actually gets mad and decides to fight for a schedule change, at best it will only help students who are currently in high school--people probably well into their heavy acne stage.

One would think that somehow our academic calendar could be proven unconstitutional because of "cruel and unusual punishment." Unfortunately, the effort would never stand up in court. While the schedule is certainly cruel, at Harvard this kind of student neglect is far from unusual.

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