Reconsidering heavy reading loads: The potential benefits of assigning less reading

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In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have taken three seminars in my first semester at the College. I got a bit overzealous in planning my classes, and might have taken on more reading than a person would reasonably want to do in a single semester. But in talking with other students, I’ve found that other people (who are better planners than me) are having a similar experience; many students here have trouble understanding all of the reading material that they’re assigned, largely because of its sheer volume. The student body could stand to benefit from reducing these reading lengths.

I don’t want this op-ed to come across as a complaint about having to do a lot of work. I knew what I was getting into when I decided to enroll. In fact, my primary motivation for suggesting that reading loads be reduced is not to cut back on the amount of time that we spend completing it; rather, it’s to allow us to dedicate the same amount of time to a smaller amount of material. I’ll admit that my suggestions are based largely on my own personal experiences, but I believe that these experiences are typical enough to make these changes worthwhile.

There’s a limited amount of time that I’m willing to spend reading on a daily basis. It’s a pretty large amount of reading since this is a demanding place. There’s so much going on here beyond classes that I’m not willing to spend all day preparing for class discussions. Even if my classes were more diversified, there’s no way I’d be able to read everything thoroughly without significant sacrifices in other areas. I’ve learned to get a solid grasp on most texts by skimming thoroughly and effectively. I understand texts well enough to feel confident contributing to discussions in class, but it’s certainly not the level of comprehension that I’d have if I could read everything at a slower pace.

In some of my classes, we almost never have time to discuss every assigned reading. In my sociology class (which has assignments of pretty reasonable length most of the time), there are some days when we’ll have three assigned readings, but only manage to talk about one or two of them in a given class period. If one of these readings were cut, the discussion wouldn’t have been any less productive, as it’s clear that the two other readings provided plenty of material for discussion. Even if we discuss every assigned text, time usually has to be managed carefully to ensure that everything gets attention. In my experience, shorter readings would almost always have been sufficient, and a greater level of depth might have been reached if we didn’t have to move on to another topic (albeit a closely related one in most cases).

Oftentimes, however, readings are still useful even if they aren’t discussed thoroughly in class. They might provide historical background to a particular trend, or useful supplemental knowledge that aids in discussing the primary reading. For instance, in my comparative literature class, we’ll read an article on a particular literary trend, and then read a few examples of that style of writing. The “preface” readings are usually helpful, but often take up such a significant amount of time that I’m unable to give as much attention as I’d like to the other content. There are ways around this. Professors could truncate contextual readings, paring them down to their most essential parts so more time can be devoted to the materials that are focused on in class. Although relevant resources might not be readily available for highly specialized classes, there might even be alternative sources of context, such as educational videos or audio lectures, that perform the same duty as the reading. The use of these resources, when available, could help make assignments more varied and efficient. Some professors already do this, so it wouldn’t be a radical departure from current norms.

Long reading assignments are also a significant source of stress. For me, this isn’t because they take up too much time, although I can certainly see this being the case for people, like athletes, with significant time restraints. Rather, the fact that I feel the need to rush through many of my readings leaves me feeling less prepared than I could be. With condensed assignments, I’d still spend a comparable amount of time completing them; but with a higher level of comprehension and the freedom to move at a more methodical pace, daily readings would feel much less like a rush to the finish.

Again, I understand that this is a demanding place. Even with condensed readings, there will inevitably be times when some stress and compromises are inevitable. But shortening readings does not have to be an educational sacrifice. It can be done in a way that promotes deeper learning and lifts stress off of our student body. Luke Valadie ’22 is from Bradenton, Fla. His major is undecided.