Members of a venerable institution such as Harvard, with its excellent humanities and language offerings, are inclined to pay attention to the value of words. Thus the much-heralded "concentration" instead of "major," "government" instead of "political science" and "teaching fellow" instead of "teaching assistant."
How strange, then, that the words "reading period" should bear absolutely no resemblance to their actual meaning. It used to be that a Harvard reading period was a time for students to read additional, enjoyable books their professors assigned; the purpose was for students to take a break from run-of-the-mill coursework. As nice as that may sound, that time is long gone. During modern reading periods, students not only do not read for enjoyment, they don't read at all.
A Harvard reading period is a little like the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. Admittedly, it may take place at Harvard, and it may span a period of time (11 or 12 days, depending on which way the stars are aligned this term), but it is certainly not a period for reading.
The conversation around house dining halls these days will tell you that. One naive to these parts might see the words "reading period" and think to him or herself, "Oh, how lucky! Perhaps I can catch some Harvard undergraduates sitting around the dinner table and discussing the nuanced arguments of Bentham or the witty repartee of Molière!" But our eager observer would be out of luck, for the real conversations go as follows: "Yeah, I have an eight-pager due tomorrow and a 15-pager due Monday" or "I have a problem set due Thursday and another one due Tuesday. And I have a final I haven't started studying for on Wednesday."
Don't misunderstand: theoretically, reading period is a great idea. After classes are finished, you can (theoretically) catch up on the few (or 1500) pages of reading you didn't get done during the semester, look through your notebooks, glance over the books you did read and be ready for your final exam by reading period's end.
Unfortunately, it rarely works that way. Professors routinely assign papers and other work due during reading period. If you are a humanities concentrator, you end up with four or five papers due within a week; if you are a science concentrator, you continue going to classes and completing problem sets when you are supposed to be able to study.
The dilemma in hard science classes seems fairly easy to solve: don't hold class and don't assign new material during reading period. Allow students to digest the old lectures instead of having to continue attending 9 a.m. classes and frantically trying to assimilate new concepts in the days before the exam.
The problem in the humanities and the social sciences seems more difficult to solve. After all, if one is taking four classes that require large papers, they could all be due before reading period within a week, which is in many ways worse than having them due during reading period. Many well-meaning professors believe they are being kind to assign papers due before reading period, but when they are all assigned at once, the professors' good intentions are undermined.
There is one feasible, attractive solution for humanities and social science classes: require students to turn in a draft of a paper in the two or three weeks before classes end and reading period begins. This will serve two purposes: first, it will lessen the burden on students during reading period because they will only have to revise a draft rather than create one from scratch. In addition, spreading out the work of a paper will lighten the load all around. Second, and more important from a teaching standpoint, it will improve students' writing. It is amazing how much better a paper can be when the final draft is not the same as the first draft, or when it is not written the night before it is due.
This solution would ease the pressure on students and improve students' writing. More importantly, it would allow students to use reading period as it was meant to be used--to read books.
Sarah J. Schaffer's column appears on alternate Fridays.
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