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The Neverending Story: Tales from the Harvard Oeuvre

By Jenny E. Heller and Erica B. Levy, Crimson Staff Writerss

From Aristotle to Twain to Joyce, the complaint is the same: too much reading.

At Harvard it's a given: time spent pouring over textbooks, sourcebooks and classics cuts into students' essay writing, socializing and extracurriculars.

Or, more likely, the reading just doesn't get finished.

Many humanities classes and cores expect students to read and absorb 150 to 250 pages of reading per week, giving lots of humanities concentrators a total of close to 1,000 pages.

Even though students complain, they have accepted the large reading loads that come with a Harvard education.

But that doesn't mean they read all of it.

A Way of Life

At Harvard, students spend more time reading than they do sleeping.

While some doctors might find this distressing, professors and students say the load is integral to the learning process.

"If it's good reading, it's worth doing," says Currier resident Benjamin F. Stapleton '00.

And professors say it is important to have a cross section of reading that illustrates the themes of the course. "If possible I will assign the best possible writing," says Warren Professor of History Ernest R. May who teaches History 1650a: Foreign Relations of the United States I. "It ought to be fun to study history."

While professors say they do not let the amount of material deter them from choosing the best authors, they do try to take the amount of pages assigned each week into account.

"I try to make it roughly equal from week to week," says Professor of History James Hankins, who teaches History 10a: Western Societies, Politics and cultures From Antiquity to 1650, and assigns about 160 pages of reading per week.

If all four classes have that much--or more--it could be too much. In that case, students say that the relevance of the reading determines whether or not to read it.

"The amount of reading would be appropriate if all reading we had to do was more well-connected to the course," says literature concentrator Sarah E. Kerman '02. "In my experience, 75 percent of reading is useful and relevant."

Professors say things have improved since they were in school.

"The work load at Harvard is significantly less than what I did as an undergraduate, so I don't consider...complaints legitimate," says Professor of History William E. Gienapp who teaches History 1624: Jacksonian America, 1815 to 1845 which has about 200 pages of reading a week.

How to Manage

Whether or not students are happy with their course loads, the work must get done. If you're clever enough to get into Harvard, you must be creative enough to find ways to get around the reading.

"I try at least to look over all the reading," Kerman says. "How carefully I read it depends on the difficulty and how relevant it is."

May says the large amounts of reading teach students to glean the information they need from books ignoring the parts that are not relevant.

"I think one function of courses that are essentially non-quantitative is to give people practice in 'using' books," May says. "That is, going through them with questions in mind rather than reading page after page at a standard pace."

May's technique is common at Harvard, and many students have become accustomed to the analysis that accompanies each of their reading assignments.

The difference between high school reading and college reading is that in high school, it's about what you read, in college, how you read it, according to Nathaniel V. Popper '02.

But some students say that the amount of reading assigned prevents them from getting all they can from an analysis.

"In general, I shy away from a course that has too much reading because I don't feel satisfied," says Sachin H. Jain '02. "Courses with less volume tend to emphasize whether you have done the reading and thought about it."

As students become acquainted with fat syllabi, they say they figure out how to pick out the most important pages, and just don't do all the reading.

Jain says that last year when things got really tough, he and a few friends decided to "divide and conquer" by parceling out reading and providing study partners with thorough outlines.

"Giving up hope--that's the last thing we want to do," Jain says.

Still others say they will complete the reading, even if it seems excessive.

"I have 47 books--it cost me just under $700," says Christopher A. Hunter '02. When his friends scoffed, Hunter retorted that he'd read them all. In the end, though, many professors say they don't expect students to grasp every detail.

"For a lot of the reading, students do not have to understand all the details; they just have to get the concepts," says Professor of Economics David M. Cutler who teaches Quantitative Reasoning24: Health Economics.

But they do expect a good faith effort to do the reading.

When asked what he would say to students seriously concerned with the large amount of reading, Hankins said, "They should attend another university."

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