Writing Period?

An excess of class assignments defeats the purpose of reading period

With less than two weeks of classes left, one would naturally expect Harvard students to be overwhelmed by looming due dates for papers, projects, and other final assignments. While for some, there is indeed precious little time left until they are expected to turn in their culminating work for the semester, many others find themselves with three and sometimes four weeks until final assignments must be submitted.

This University-endorsed procrastination is made possible by the most misleadingly named feature of the Harvard calendar, the so-called “reading period.” This two-week period, arguably one of the greatest selling points of Harvard’s bizarre schedule, is often touted as a beacon of hope for the slacking masses—a chance to catch up on the readings and watch the lectures that somehow slipped through the cracks during the regular part of the semester. And for those rare gems of students who actually completed their readings in a timely fashion and dutifully attended every lecture, reading period is expected to provide the opportunity for comprehensive review. This allows undergrads to truly grasp and internalize the material of their courses.

However, what no one tells these poor souls when singing the praises of Harvard’s reading period is that they won’t actually have time to do any of these things. Instead, they’ll be searching the stacks of Widener in pursuit of books for their research projects, and cloistered away on the fifth floor of Lamont for days constructing fifteen to twenty-page arguments about the role of France in the American Revolution, or any other subject that instructors deem worthy of discussion in the final paper.

In leafing through the syllabi of Harvard’s many courses, you’ll find that final papers and projects are due as early in reading period as May 6, or as late in the game as May 18. These final assignments, especially when students are expected to complete them for more than just one course, have the potential to consume the entire reading period even for the most skilled multi-taskers. After all, how can one be expected to go over the reading for the course at large when there are 200 extra (and often only tangentially related) pages to wade through for the final paper?

Although it might seem that reading period due dates are a kind gesture on the part of instructors, meant to give students ample time to create quality work, such late due dates impose time-consuming assignments on a period intended for review. This creates added stress for students who are likely to be already on edge in anticipation of final exams. To be fair to students, courses with final assignments should make those assignments due while classes are still in session. If this is not possible, and for one reason or another final papers or projects must be due during reading period, then those assignments should be the sole culminating exercise for the course—there should not be a final to worry about on May 20 when you’ve just turned in a 20-page paper on the 17th.

Realistically, it is unlikely that many instructors will be willing to give up the combined evaluative worth that requiring both a final exam and a final paper provides. As a compromise, instructors who plan on making both requirements part of their syllabi should make every effort possible to confine the due dates of final assignments within the early part of reading period, not going too far beyond the first three days, and certainly not extending into the second week.

Until such changes are made, “reading period” will never truly live up to its name, and will never be much benefit to students.

Ashton R. Lattimore ’08 is an English concentrator in Dunster House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.