Give Me Reading Period

Or give me death: Why I like our exam schedule just the way it is

I find it mildly annoying whenever I go home for winter break and someone says to me, “How’d your exams go?” Then they pause for dramatic effect, and follow up with, “Oh, I forgot—you don’t have them ’til after Christmas.” It’s a comment that’s supposed to make me curse Harvard’s silliness in calling majors “concentrations” and having its exams after the holidays instead of before.

A lot of folks on campus have fully bought into this theory. For years I’ve heard a call for Harvard to align itself with the majority of the country and hold exams before Christmas, allowing for a longer winter break and causing the removal, shortening, or at least restructuring of Reading Period and Intersession. I come before you today as a dissenting opinion, someone who thinks we are all too quick to dismiss the unique benefits, tangible and intangible, that our current exam schedule offers us.

People complain that our Christmas break is shorter than other schools’, and perhaps it is if looked at only as a “Christmas” break. But consider the span of time from the first day of vacation (Dec. 21) to the first day of spring classes (Feb. 1). Over these 40 days, you’ll be required, on average, to take three or four exams (five if you’re masochistic, and probably something like one plus a paint-by-numbers if you’re a VES major). That’s it! People act as if the overbearing albatross of having to study for exams ruins their breaks. The reality is that anyone who even contemplates studying over winter vacation has already made a grave mistake…the fact of the matter is that there’s simply no need to.

People seem to have forgotten the magic that is Reading Period. Starting and ending approximately whenever you feel like it, this is your chance to study for exactly as much or as little as you want. On any given day, you can study for six hours, or you can do nothing. You can lie in bed, you can read a magazine, or you can picket in front of the Science Center to protest the newest issue on which you’ll have entirely reversed your viewpoint by the time you’re 30. But hey, I won’t see you there. Since the Science Center doesn’t fall somewhere within the paradise triangle of my room, the dining hall, and Louie’s, it’s just not part of my Reading Period world. I don’t even know it exists.

There’s a reason that Reading Period is colloquially known as “Drinking Period,” or, in my case, “Sleeping and Playing Video Games Period.” At no other point in your life, not even at any other point during the fantasyland of college, will your sole responsibilities be a) to study for some few hours over the course of two weeks, and b) manage your fantasy sports teams. In many ways, Reading Period is the slightly punier little brother of the glorious days of Camp Harvard. These are times that should be treasured, not destroyed or changed.

Furthermore, moving exams before Christmas would do nothing to alleviate stress; it would only exacerbate it. Picture this—as you read this column, your friends at other schools are spending countless sleepless nights as they try to balance end of the semester work with the added stress of exam preparation. You and I, on the other hand, will gracefully finish up our semesters, go home for break, and then return when we’re ready—only to be afforded a two week grace period to do nothing except hang out and study (and let’s face it, if there’s any class that you can’t get adequately prepared for in two weeks, you’re at the wrong school). After we take our exams, we get another vacation of anywhere from one to two weeks to recharge the batteries and do whatever else we want. Heck, after that is shopping period, which you don’t even really need to be back for. Certainly, if you’re looking for the option involving the least stress, you’ve already found it.

The only marginally valid criticism of our exam and break format is that it misaligns Harvard’s schedule with the rest of the nation, making it hard to go on long vacations with family or see friends from other schools. This is a fair critique, but hardly one that outweighs the benefits I’ve mentioned above. After all, if you really want to hang out with your high school friends that much, you can always use all or part of your winter break or intersession to go and visit them (or get them to visit you, if their breaks are as impossibly long and awesome as my friends sometimes suggest).

I’m usually a member of the school of thought that says get the bad stuff over with and reap the rewards afterwards, instead of the other way around. But in our situation, we get both immediate rewards and more than ample time to prepare for exams. It’s a best-of both-worlds, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too situation, and there are all too few of those in life.

So let sleeping dogs lie, and leave Reading Period alone. Because all I want for Christmas is for people to stop asking how many exams went.

Andrew Kreicher ’06 is a biology concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.