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On skimming

In her October 9 column “Skip the skimming,” Prianka Misra wrote about the increasingly prevalent phenomenon in humanities classes at Princeton to assign reading that far exceeds what is humanly possible for a student to complete. The Daily Princetonian’s editorial board later agreed. Misra wrote that course syllabi that proudly flaunt 200-300 pages of reading per week “beg for insincerity.” While it is certainly true that several hundred pages is a lot of reading — probably more than a student can feasibly do for a single class on top of other coursework, extracurricular obligations and sleep — I don’t believe we should be so quick to dismiss the idea of skimming.

Skimming isn’t a mark of insincerity. Rather, it shows a strong ability to prioritize. Skimming doesn’t impart a superficial understanding of a topic. It imparts the most important facts, because it’s hardly ever the tiny details that make or break your understanding of a topic. The things you learn in college aren’t limited to the things you stay up late studying, such as the exact mechanism of a gene inversion or the deeper theory behind Nietzsche’s later work. You also build a work ethic and learn habits that help you succeed in a more general sense than just passing an exam. Learning to skim helps you survive in college, but will also absolutely carry over to the real world.

Skimming is a necessity in virtually any profession that you could end up pursuing in the future. Lawyers need to be able to skim their case files, gleaning the essentials in documents that they perhaps don’t have the time to prioritize. Doctors need to be able to skim literature when they’re trying to diagnose a patient, as meticulously reading through a whole library of case studies is a waste of valuable time.

Furthermore, Princeton has long been working on a way to standardize policies across departments. The most infamous example of this is the grade deflation policy, which was put in place in part to keep some majors from being significantly “easier” than others. No one could argue that humanities at Princeton are easy, namely because they assign so much reading. In my opinion, the amount of reading assigned is in part to match the level of time commitment required by science and math students.

Take a simple example. CHM 303/304: Organic Chemistry has two 80-minute lectures a week, in addition to a three-hour lab and a 50-minute precept. This comes out to a total of six and a half hours. A representative history class — HIS 361: The United States Since 1974, for instance — has two 50-minute lectures and a 50-minute precept, which adds up to two and a half hours of class time. Keep in mind that this is just raw class time. Science problem sets are notoriously intensive, with time commitments as high as 12 hours per week in some courses. Science majors usually take two or three such classes at a time. For a humanities class to be roughly the same time investment as the average science class, it would require an additional seven hours of homework, outside of class time. If the average college student can read 40 pages in an hour, it just about evens everything out.

Now, there are obviously many simplifications in this example. It’s not that class times should be extended unnecessarily to even things out across departments. And this does not in any way speak to the difficulty of the material being taught, either. A philosophy class can be just as challenging as one in the biology department. But in terms of how many concrete hours per week a student has to devote to a certain class, heaps of reading is one of the most obvious ways to even out the interdepartmental playing field.

It’s very true that the workload measured in pages is sometimes downright egregious in certain classes offered here. But the time commitment asked of students enrolled in these classes isn’t any more than what is asked of students in other departments, who cordon off three-hour blocks of time for labs and problem sets. Beyond that, adapting to change is one of the points of coming to college. In the end, you come to college knowing that you’ll be challenged more than you were in high school. Skimming is an incredibly important tool with a great measure of practical use for the future.

Shruthi Deivasigamani is a sophomore from Cresskill, N.J. She can be reached at shruthid@princeton.edu.

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