Making Space for a Longer Fall Reading Period

Sam Jewler, Ian Seeley, and Lila Leatherman

From smoking cigarettes to running through the library naked, Oberlin students always find a way to cope with the stress of their impending finals. Reading period is never easy, but it might get a little less stressful in the next few years. It appears that the work of some former student senators could potentially result in adding one day to reading period as soon as 2011.

Last spring, then-Student Senators Leah Pine and Ben Klebanoff, both OC ’09, and College junior Luke Squire sensed a growing student consensus that the fall reading period was too short. These senators believed that a three-day reading period, especially a reading period where two of the days are over the weekend and already free from classes and exams, puts undue stress on students.

“[It] is a situation where students are simply unable to produce their best work for all of their classes; they end up having to shaft one or two projects at the end of every semester — and not necessarily because of poor time management,” Pine wrote in an email to the Review. “Students should be able to give 100 percent to all of their work, but the current configuration of reading period simply does not allow for that.”

According to Registrar Liz Clerkin, who is also head of the calendar committee, students share this opinion with most members of the faculty and administration.

“Literally everyone we wrote to supports it,” said Squire, who served as the Student Senate’s liaison to the administration at the time.

The movement for reading period reform gained greater urgency last spring when Student Senate began discussing the issue with faculty and deans. These talks followed the passage of a Student Senate resolution saying, “Whereas many students have approached members of the Student Senate of Oberlin College expressing their profound displeasure with the length of reading period currently afforded to them, and whereas many other colleges and universities have a reading period that is longer than that of Oberlin College’s … be it resolved, that the length of reading period at Oberlin College must be increased by at least one day for the 2009-2010 academic year, and that the decided increase of reading period must be continued into every academic year thereafter.”

The last change to the reading period schedule came in 1989, when it went from five days to the three days it is now.

Professor and Chair of Hispanic Studies Sebastiaan Faber voiced the general opinion of the faculty in support of extra studying time. “I’d be in favor of it because you students are so overworked,” he said. “It would give you more time to improve the quality of your work.”

Logistics, Logistics

“The [fall semester] … could be lengthened,” said Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov. “That could be beneficial. It’s just, do we open up the dorms earlier, and what does that mean?”

Indeed, the desire to add a day to the fall reading period is virtually unchallenged; the difficulty, however, comes with how to adjust Oberlin’s schedule to make that day available. Academic calendars are prepared in groups of 10 years, and Oberlin’s calendars are already prepared through the year 2017.

Clerkin said, however, that “There’s no reason why we can’t go back and say, ‘We’d like to make a change.’ ”

Clerkin cautioned that the process is complicated and that the calendar committee has made no official decisions yet but said, “If the [calendar] committee meets in January and we’re happy and we can get this shopped around enough and get it through the General Faculty by the end of the year, we might be able to put something in place by the fall of 2011.” The calendar committee is responsible for drawing up the calendars, while the faculty gets the final vote on whether to put them through.

Clerkin added that Oberlin looks for examples of good practices at other schools of similar size and quality as well as at other schools in the Midwest.

A Study in Reading Period Lengths

Reading periods are varied for colleges throughout the country, running the gamut from the short, the long and the divided.

Some schools make Oberlin’s reading period seem generous.

At Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, students are given only one “study day” between the end of classes and the beginning of finals. A representative at the Macalester Office of the Registrar said that this type of scheduling had been used for more than 16 years. In response to this scheduling, Macalester first- year Sam Burgin said, “The reading period isn’t really much time to read our workload. It gives you exactly enough time to realize how underprepared and overworked we are.”

At Carleton College in Northfield, MN, the trimester system of three 10-week semesters results in reading periods of two days that generally fall on a Thursday and Friday, with exams the following weekend and the beginning of the next week. According to Senior Administrative Assistant to the Registrar Ann May, the reading period was decreased to one day about 10 years ago. The change only lasted for one school year, however, as students and fac- ulty alike requested to switch back to the original schedule, which has been essentially the same since the ’70s. May added that current students are content with Carleton’s two-day reading period.

Williams College in Williamstown, MA, has a four-day reading period that also encompasses the beginning of a period in which students can begin 24-hour take-home final exams, according to Registrar Charlie Toomajian. They have received no student complaints and have heard no mention of changes, according to Toomajian.

Harvard and Yale’s reading periods last roughly a week depending on the calendar year.

Although Oberlin students would consider this an extension, Harvard students would think of it as a reduction. As of this year, Harvard altered its academic calendar to put its finals before Christmas. This resulted in the elimination of the 10-day reading periods possible in previous years.

According to Jeff A. Neal, senior communications officer for Harvard, “students and faculty made clear to the administration their support for the continuation of a robust reading period at Harvard. We are pleased that we were able to accommodate that consensus.”

Some institutions, such as the University of Michigan, divide their final examination schedule into two clusters, each with a reading period followed by an examination period.

According to University of Michigan spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald, “The idea is to provide more study opportunities. … Having study days at the beginning and … in the middle of the exam period allows students to focus on perhaps their first few exams during their first study days and then their second set of exams during their second … weekend of study days.”

When asked if students have had any problems with the university’s final examination policies, Fitzgerald said he was unaware of any complaints and the system has remained unchanged since the mid-1960s. “It’s a system that seems to work well for [faculty and students],” said Fitzgerald.

So What Are Our Options?

As of now, Oberlin’s calendar committee is considering three options to create space for the extra day in the fall semester.

One possibility is to switch the lengths of fall break and Thanksgiving break. The idea is that most students miss class to travel the Wednesday before Thanksgiving break, but fewer of them would go home on a Wednesday before a break that did not include a holiday. The extra day for reading period would theoretically come from turning what is already a school day into a school day on which more students actually attend class.

Some students think this might be awkward, however: “Thanksgiving is so close to winter break that you don’t really need a week long break then,” said College senior Katherine Leonetti. “But I wouldn’t mind staying a couple days longer in the fall, because it would make the whole finals period so much less stressful.”

If fact, another idea is to simply add one day onto the end of the semester, though Clerkin said that the prospect of pushing the start of winter break past Dec. 22 would be unpopular with the General Faculty who get the final vote on calendar issues. This option could also make traveling home harder and more expensive for students.

A third option is to add a day to the beginning of the semester, possibly by holding classes on Labor Day. This could potentially accompany another, unrelated initiative to shift the fall semester a week earlier so that students could get their grades, along with any information on academic sanctions, before winter break. “The reason we would like to do that is the academic standing committee meets during January, and by the time we wait for grades to come in, finalize the grades, get the reports to the academic standing committee, and communicate to the students, and the students need to decide ‘What I’m going to do — am I going to appeal the [suspension], am I going to sit out?’, it’s the beginning of the next semester,” Clerkin said. “There’s very little recovery time.”

One objection to that idea comes from the Conservatory, where most student performances happen in the period between Thanksgiving break and the end of the fall semester. That scheduling custom would have to undergo major reform if the semester were to shift back a week.

The spring semester’s reading period is less of a concern, because it already essentially encompasses four days. It runs from Sunday to Tuesday, with that weekend’s Saturday technically open for classes.

“I know it seems that change happens very slowly,” Clerkin said, “but a part of that is because we’re already into planning for the next year, and possibly [for] the year after. So any change that happens to the calendar — we have to take that into consideration first.”

“Giving students proper time to prepare well-constructed, well-researched and contemplative work could only be a good thing, and administrators recognized that,” said Pine, “especially when we presented them with the grim reality that many students face during reading period and finals: days at a time without sleep, and sometimes days at a time eating only coffee and that Chex Mix-surrogate from the Rat.”