It’s got to be one of the happiest weeks of the semester. A shining beacon of hope amidst academic despair. An oasis in an arid scholastic landscape. A break of sunshine in an otherwise cloudy four months of study. An original thought in a paragraph full of overused metaphors. I’m talking about reading week, and in colleges and universities across Canada, it’s here (or will be soon).
Reading week is as much about “reading” as a smartphone is about making telephone calls: we know what we’re supposed to be using it for, but there are just so many other fun things to do! Students know they won’t be catching up on their reading as much as they should; professors know that most students won’t get caught up (though that won’t stop them from giving assignments over the break); and administrators know that, despite keeping libraries and student services buildings open, the campus is going to be decidedly student-free for a week.
What you don’t hear too much of is students wondering why they get the break in the first place. Except for Career Options blogger Fraser Tripp, who looked into fall reading breaks last October.
There are a few theories out there, but none of them are particularly good. Let’s have a look.
Theory A: Suicide Prevention
I hear this one being floated around quite often, but whether it holds any water is another matter. The thinking goes that the suicide rate for students spikes around February/March, due to the combined pressures of prolonged academic strain, lengthy exposure to the relative cold and darkness of winter weather, and mounting stress over impending midterms and assignment due dates.
As it turns out, the whole late winter suicide rate spike is probably a myth. The actual months with the highest suicide rates are late July and August (with International Suicide Prevention Awareness Week falling on the first week of September). And while the implementation of a week’s respite in an attempt to cut down on suicides is laudable, the idea that you can “cure” suicidal tendencies with a simple week off is frankly insulting, and indicative of many harmful attitudes that society harbors about mental health. We need to treat this issue far more seriously.
Theory B: Avoiding Sickness
I was told once that reading weeks were first implemented by universities because they wanted to cut down on students missing classes, exams and assignments due to illness. So they created a break period during a time of year when, statistically, the highest number of students would be sick.
I have no idea if there is any evidence to support this, and as five minutes of Internet searching did not provide me with sufficient answers, I’m happy to admit that there’s probably no objective truth to it. However, it always seems like a lot of sick people get sick in February. Just last week I succumbed to illness, along with three or four coworkers. That counts as evidence, right?
Theory C: Ancient Tradition
Western academia’s roots go all the way back to ancient Greece, when Aristotle, Socrates and Plato were prancing around The Academy in togas and sandals. The arrival of spring signalled that society deserved a good old break, full of rest and wine-soaked merrymaking. Of course, in the midst of their philosophizing, scholars wouldn’t have wanted to anger Dionysus, the god of wine (and partying, basically). Accordingly, they most likely took a break in the spring to pay their respects, lest Athena grow too full of herself.
This theory seems to be at least partially accepted, though I may have taken a few creative liberties in the last part there.
My theory? Reading week is good old fashioned holiday distribution. That, and the fact that we’re so used to having breaks associated with school. We progressively get fewer and fewer breaks as we climb the academic ladder from kindergarten to post-secondary. From half days with snacks and nap time, to recess and PD days, to spring break and a two month summer, to reading week and the odd holiday long weekend. Take away reading week, and you’ve upset a clear and logical balance.
And we all know how important balance is. That, and sleeping in.