Revisiting the Three R's

Reading Period is for reading, not for writing

Countless cups of coffee, typing in Cabot until dawn, days spent underground in Widener on a laptop. For many students, these are the defining moments of Reading Period, a supposedly sacrosanct time for Harvard students to study in peace.

Harvard’s faculty and its student body, however, seem to have two conflicting visions of what “reading” means. Students see Reading Period as a time to prepare for final examinations. It is a time to catch up on reading, go over one’s notes, and attend review sessions. It is also a time to regroup, reflect, and rest before the chaos of final examinations.

Maybe. Yet, as it currently stands, the sanctity of Reading Period is routinely violated. Students find themselves immersed under piles of work. Many have term papers (more than one, at times). Others have problem sets and midterms to complete. This is the reality of reading period, a reality that is enshrined by the Handbook for Students 2004-2005: “Those courses that have a final exercise other than a regular three-hour final examination schedule these activities during Reading Period. Some courses continue to meet on their regular schedules during much of Reading Period.”

The root of this problem is excessive course backloading. Though introductory courses must necessarily reserve assigning most of the credit until the end of the semester, backloading spreads far beyond this selection of classes. For the professors of many non-intro courses, written work due during reading period can determine over 50 percent of the course grade—not even including the final. As a result, students find themselves with a Herculean workload, no time to complete it, and their grades on the line.

No papers should be due during “Reading” Period. Term papers for classes without finals should be due either before Reading Period or during Finals Period. And papers for classes with finals should be assigned earlier, so students have more control over how they want to budget their time. These papers should be due before Reading Period to give students a full and uninterrupted complement of time to study for finals.


Call us whiny, call us procrastinators, but don’t call us naïve. Harvard students have all shared the burden of papers due during Reading Period assigned the week before. We’ve all experienced the take-home final due during reading period from the class that also gives a regular final. Behind every poorly worded hour-long essay (one of three on the final), there’s a student who had three essays and a take-home due during the time he or she was supposed to be “reading.” Scenarios like this are only becoming more widespread.

For as long as we can remember, we’ve relied on the expertise (mercy?) of professors to ensure that our classes reasonably spread work out throughout the entire semester. Lately, we’ve come to believe that this faith may be misplaced. If it will take an investigation from the Office of the Dean of the College to define what exactly is permissible during Reading Period, then so be it. If the Handbook for Students needs an overhaul, fine. Reading Period should be a time to prepare for final examinations—not a time to burn out.