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Mirchandani ’15: To read or not to read?

“To read or not to read?” is a question that has crossed almost every Brown student’s mind at some point. It’s 2 a.m., and he is sitting slumped in front of an entire week’s worth of reading due for a 9 a.m. class the next day, his eyes barely able to make it past page six without succumbing to sleep’s seductive call. Many of us have been in this situation, when limited time forces us to consider skipping the readings for a day, a week and — for those of us who live on the academic edge — even a month, in favor of sleep or the pursuit of some greater activity.

Limited time is a problem that arguably results from poor organizational skills on our part as students. Blaming the student is easy. Not just reading, but reading “critically” is something we tacitly consented to dutifully doing when we chose to pursue higher education at Brown. And skipping the readings for a class is like slapping oneself in the face with a 3,392 page Norton Shakespeare — it results in us getting less out of the class, which harms only ourselves.

College is costly in many ways, and people don’t want to feel cheated out of their academic experiences.  So why is it that assigned readings, which are so essential to getting the most out of classes, are commonly ignored by even the most motivated of Brown students?

The average international relations concentrator takes four humanities classes per semester. The average humanities class requires about 80-100 pages of weekly reading, and with seminars, that number touches two hundred. This translates to roughly 400-800 pages of reading each week ­— maybe even more. Even if you have the gifted ability to absorb information more rapidly than a Blue Room muffin absorbs butter, 800 pages of reading is no small number. The questions here arises: Are so many pages necessary? How effectively can one get by on the “bare minimum?”

In my humble opinion, the tragic answer is: quite effectively. Not only can one survive even upper level seminars by merely “gutting” a book — reading the introduction and the conclusion and skimming the rest — but oftentimes by not referring to the primary source at all, relying solely on online reviews and summaries. Better start making those donations to Wikipedia soon.

On the contrary, one could argue that it is one thing to survive and another to truly absorb every nuance of a book or article. I will not deny that gutting a book results in a shallower learning experience compared to a detailed analysis of every comma, full stop and semi-colon. You would hope that most of the time readings — judiciously selected by our professors — merit this careful scrutiny. But is it possible for professors to be unreasonable in the quantities they assign?

Recently, students in my political science lecture complained to the professor that the reading load for the course was unmanageable. This was not well received. But the teaching assistants of the class have, from the very beginning, made it clear that the students are not expected to do all the readings. “Focus on the lectures,” they said.

When both the teachers and the students know just how much work the students are going to put in, why put on a farce of supreme intellectual rigor? Why distribute a hefty syllabus long enough to compete with some of the readings themselves? Perhaps professors need to consider assigning the precise amount students can complete and benefit from. It may be hard to determine exactly what is a “reasonable” amount, but it’s not that hard to spot what is unreasonable.

In the final analysis, yes, it does depend on the class whether all assigned readings are absolutely necessary or not. And it is true that the more you put into a class, the more you get out of it. But there also exists a threshold point similar to the economic concept of diminishing marginal returns. Beyond this point, more is lost than gained. When an inordinate reading load comes at the cost of other priorities, it is unlikely a student who is surviving on more cups of coffee than hours of sleep will go to the trouble to finish it, no matter how much it may enrich his class experience.