Making Time To Speak to Lear

Excessive reading loads anesthetize, rather than enlighten, undergraduates

When students tell Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism James Wood that they first encountered King Lear at 2:30 in the morning, he knows that something is very wrong. “The text doesn’t speak to them,” he laments. And I, for one, agree.

Harvard students, especially humanities concentrators, face monstrous reading loads. Expected to plow through 350 pages each week, students in the most demanding courses are faced with two alternatives—and neither, let me warn you, is pretty.

The first option is superficial reading, a half-hearted skim that introduced our poor friend to the beauties of Shakespeare. Passive reading allows students to get through the syllabus—and nothing more. When students do not ask questions of their reading, it offers little intellectual benefit. Whether the text is historical, philosophical or literary—my History and Literature friends might even argue against these distinctions—it deserves close attention. The Communist Manifesto, Graham Greene’s novels, and Descartes’ Meditations are begging to be poked, prodded, turned upside down, and shaken most vigorously. But when the clock is ticking and I still have 400 pages to go, I give Marx a pat on the head and move on.

The second option is selective reading. In fact, many professors expect that their students will not do all the required reading. But what to cut? Undergrads are rarely in a position to weigh the merits of unfamiliar texts. One text may provide background for another, or offer an important critique, or update an outdated argument. If we cut one, we might as well cut the other.

Professors who overwhelm their students with copious amounts of reading are doing them a disservice. Balancing social and extracurricular commitments with a four- or five-course load is tough; engaging fruitfully with those courses is tougher. Certainly, undergrads should be prepared to work—and “work hard,” as Tisch Professor of History Niall Ferguson puts it. But they simply do not have the time or the stamina to read a total of 1,200 pages a week.

Incidentally, Ferguson assigns over 300 pages each week in History 10b.

Many professors argue that it is not easy to achieve both depth and breadth in designing a syllabus. But throwing three novels or four hundred pages of critical theory at a group of busy undergrads is not the answer. I probably don’t need to read Derrida’s take on Foucault’s take on Habermas’ interpretation of the Social Contract. Professors should distill—what a beautiful ideal!—and having distilled, recommend additional reading for those interested.

Some professors argue that the problem is inherently disciplinary: some disciplines are, by necessity, more page-heavy than others. There is certainly some truth to that contention, but it hides some insidious assumptions. Most notably, some contend that study of English emphasizes close reading, while history depends on the ability to amass facts. Here, I beg to disagree. At the heart of both disciplines is the ability to synthesize evidence, envision an argument, and articulate it logically. Just as history concentrators must become familiar with the major events of world history, English concentrators must read the Anglo-American canon. Both pursuits involve thousands and thousands of pages, countless late nights in Lamont, and many, many dead trees.

But reading alone has little value: students in every discipline need to interact with texts. Somewhere in that mulling over, even over venti cappuccinos at 2:30 a.m., lies the value of an education in any field.

Slowing down does not mean compromising our education. Professor Ferguson says that the most important thing he learned as an undergraduate at Oxford was “how to cope with being asked to read 10 or more books a week.” I hope that my time at Harvard gives me something even better.

Thomas B. Dolinger ’09, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Strauss hall.