Shopping period is here again, and Yalies will spend the next few days attending packed classes, shuffling through syllabi and attempting to craft schedules that combine interesting classes with reasonable workloads. Yet, when weighing the difficulty levels of potential courses, I’d guess that most Yalies are more likely to be fazed by a class with a long final paper or difficult problem sets than one with a heavy reading list.
This is because of a sad reality: Most Yalies simply don’t do the full reading for their classes. Many of us will choose our courses for the semester with no intention of getting through all, or even the majority, of the assigned reading.
I remember the beginning of my freshman year, when I asked an upperclassman for tips about taking Directed Studies, and he advised me to “learn how to skim.” At first, I assumed that doing only some of the reading was a common coping strategy for the heavy workload of DS, and didn’t imagine that it was common for the rest of Yale.
Yet, as I took courses in many other academic departments, I came to realize how few Yalies were doing the reading overall. I’ve attended lectures where rooms of fifty stayed silent when the professor asked a simple question about the second chapter of a book no one had read, and seminars where discussions were filled with platitudes and empty generalizations because so few of the students had finished the assigned works.
I imagine most of us have been in lectures and seminars like these: where students put forth a great deal of effort on their essays and exams, but do little to none of the reading. There are probably several reasons why these courses are much more of a norm than we like to admit. While some of Yale’s savvier professors assign weekly reading responses, most courses don’t hold students accountable whatsoever for doing the reading. Some professors even assume that students haven’t done the reading and spend a good deal of class time reviewing the readings’ relevant details.
Meanwhile, the stigma against being the “section jerk” — for lack of a more newsprint-worthy term — provides a subtle social pressure against those who would do more reading than anyone else and make the rest of the class look bad. Yalies often pride themselves on being collaborative rather than competitive, but this seems to be an instance where we collaborate to put forth less collective effort in our courses.
If none of the right incentives are in place for Yale students to do the reading, the only thing that will motivate us to engage substantially with the assigned readings for our courses is if we think that doing so is intrinsically valuable. I’d like to offer a few reasons why we would get much more out of our classes if we did the reading.
First, when everyone has done the reading, it makes a course exponentially better. This applies most directly to seminars and discussion sections: There is nothing like the experience of sitting in a room with 17 other people, each of whom has engaged with the same work and has come prepared with questions, ideas and opinions. Even in a lecture, the knowledge that students have done the reading carefully and thoroughly allows lecturers to bypass boring summaries and address deeper and more interesting topics.
Second, readings only exist because both an author and a professor thought that a selection was worth reading in full, not partially. Authors don’t simply fill pages with needless words; in a well-written text, every word counts and every paragraph has a separate, worthwhile point to make. Shakespeare is more beautiful than Sparknotes and Hobbes more convincing than the Wikipedia page about him. Meanwhile, professors don’t simply assign readings to make their syllabi longer; most professors take great care in picking works that say unique and important things for students to read. The authority of a text’s writer and of the professor who assigned it should convince us that doing the reading is worth our time.
Finally, reading is a different and important way of acquiring knowledge. Unlike lectures and discussions, reading allows for the solitary, undisturbed contemplation of ideas. Unlike writing, reading has the power to put your own thoughts on hold as you immerse yourself in someone else’s world — whether the world of Dickens, or that of a physics researcher.
Everyone who tours Yale learns that Sterling Memorial Library was built to be a “cathedral of knowledge,” a testament to the centrality of reading to the university experience. This semester, I hope that we recommit ourselves to the centrality of reading to all of our courses.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.