Every semester, as I browse Course Offerings, I go through a phase where all I do is wince. The large numbers stare back at me from the computer, menacing me. I stare on incredulously — 150 pages of reading a week? How interesting that such a large number is often seen as a desirable option in this scenario. 200? Not bad, I think. When it comes to 300, I begin to wonder how anyone thinks this is possible in the first place. I am sure I am not the only one to have stared blankly at a daunting reading assignment on a syllabus. What audacity. Boldly stating, “pgs. 46-159,” such assignments, from my perspective, beg for insincerity. There is no way I can spend so many hours completing one of four reading assignments like this for one lecture of one class. And how can I resist using the cloak of anonymity that large lectures grant? The only time I would be motivated to take on this challenge would be for precept, when I might have to participate … But couldn’t I just make something up instead? The idea is too tempting, and so my reading assignment is whisked away to the low-priority list of tasks — a place of no return.
My friends have told me to learn to skim. Aside from the fact that I have found myself incapable of doing so while retaining any useful information, I really just don’t appreciate the idea of reading insincerely. When I tell them this, they say I must do so out of necessity. In order to survive, you must skim.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
I am not simply complaining about having too much work here — it’s the way we view the work, and the values that we are inherently encouraging when this type of work is assigned, that concern me. Our system of education for reading-based classes is almost encouraging students to halfheartedly complete their assignments. We have subscribed to a system which compares whose "precept hat" is the largest, or who has the best ability to come up with commentary on the spot — commentary on a reading assignment that likely hasn’t been finished because it was simply too long. When 200 or more pages of reading are assigned on a given night (or even in a week), students only receive a topical and superficial understanding of the literature they read. When they are subsequently tested on such material, they may be forced to make deductions and comment in a way that does not represent an accurate understanding of the material — just a condensed and watered-down version of what we really should be learning. Providing these halfhearted answers is certainly not the professor’s fault, but nonetheless the result is the same. Students resort to finding answers just for the sake of saying something, not saying something that will actually contribute to the conversation.
My question is this: As a top-tier educational establishment, do we want to encourage students to have a comprehensive and well-rounded comprehension of a few key documents and texts? Or do we want to throw out as much information as possible, and watch while those who are clever enough to toy around with key phrases speak up in precept, while others who attempted (and simply couldn’t finish) the reading slip into silence? While there are always a few exceptions of sincere readers who do actually manage to get through all of the reading, the game we play in precept feels like an assessment of street smarts rather than one of true analytical aptitude.
The realists will say that this is how the world after graduation works in many job settings. In the future, your higher-ups may throw tons of information at you, and you will have to condense the information into a cohesive, unique and informed argument. But how much of this is truly informed, and how much is fabricated?
While thinking on your feet is certainly a valuable skill in the real world, pure effort and a thorough understanding of your task at hand are arguably no less vital to have. Huge reading assignments are limiting — the time that you are willing to spend on your vast and unending span of pages will serve as your glass ceiling, and there’s only so much you can learn from reading the first line in each paragraph. Who knows how much more we could gain from cutting down the page limit for each class to 150 or 100 pages a week? We could appropriately analyze every reading assignment that we had, looking beyond key terms at more nuanced concepts. We could have more meaningful discussions in precept, not just echo sessions of one person’s astute comments. We could learn so much more, if only we decided to skip the skimming.
Prianka Misra is a sophomore from Castro Valley, Calif. She can be reached at email@example.com.