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Humanities degrees are crying out for reform

If you study humanities, then you’ll know the pain of slogging through seemingly endless reading assignments each week. Although this has been an eternal bane of students, past and present, lockdown seems to have made the sheer volume of these unbearable. The combination of no in-person teaching along with limited interaction with other students has caused academic reading to become an even more alienating task than it already was.

Don’t get me wrong: reading is a crucial part of any degree, especially humanities. But the lack of other regular assignments and work given to students is concerning. A survey conducted by The Student found that 63% of students across UK universities believe the quantity of readings they are assigned to be excessive, overwhelming evidence that a majority of students feel burdened by the strain of countless reading tasks.

Of course, this alone does not create frustration amongst students. It is instead the monotonous structure of these humanities degrees which seem to follow a pattern of 10 weeks of lone reading assignments and online lectures, interrupted by a two-week period of essay writing in between and at the end of term.

Further, 93% of students agreed that active assignments such as essays, group work, and debates increased their motivation to study more. Put these findings together and we arrive at a clear picture: the current system of learning is ineffective – universities must work to provide more interactive learning along with reading tasks to help students keep engaged with subject content, especially as online teaching zombies on.

More worryingly, 82% of university students stated that reading tasks with no other active work assigned has negatively impacted their mental health. Everyone knows humanities degrees without reading is like pubs without alcohol: pointless. When applying for humanities degrees, students are aware of this; they would never undertake such a degree without having at least some enthusiasm for reading. It is therefore very disheartening to hear that for such a large percentage of students, this enthusiasm fizzles into poor mental health.

A root behind this issue is the fact that universities have failed to create a suitable online learning space, with adequate mental health support. Many students are currently working from home, whilst others are locked up in halls, unable to see friends or family. Yet we are expected to produce the same level of work as in ‘normal’ times. Live tutorial groups have been helpful in understanding and discussing the content of the readings, however with no in-person lectures and office hours or regular assignments, it is hard to fully engage with such large amounts of information.

As seen in the survey, more interactive work appears to be the best solution to help students right now – this however does not mean we should be given more graded assignments, but instead work to help supplement our understanding of the week’s content. Suggestions for more interactive work could be questions set with each reading with a requirement to produce written answers in order to stimulate further interest. This could also be aided with more use of podcasts and documentaries. Using different mediums of learning will help studying feel less tedious, especially during a time when so many of us are under effective house arrest.

Image credit: CollegeDegrees360