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What is the appropriate reading load for a PhD-level seminar?

Paper, pen, HP TouchPad, coffee, scone. All important tools of the trade #academia

I have taught doctoral-level, Masters-level and undergraduate level courses before, and in most of these, much to most of my fellow professors’ dismay, I did a lot of lecturing and less seminar-style discussions (though my undergraduate students thought I did a little bit too much seminar-style teaching! – what a paradox). I am currently designing two doctoral-level courses and I want them to be taught as seminars, rather than me lecturing most of the time. Both courses would be surveys of the field (with reading lists similar to a PhD field comprehensive exam). I did not provide much context for my request, for which I apologize.

One of the seminars would be more than a survey of the field (Doctoral Seminar on Frontiers in Water Research) and thus I would need to increase the breadth (so that my students would read in the humanities, engineering and social sciences). Regardless, because of the fact that I speed-read and I have a photographic memory, I often feel out of touch with how much reading is appropriate. I have read very widely simply because (a) I love scholarship and (b) I have the physical capability to read a lot and understand and absorb it. Not everyone reads and comprehends at my speed.

So I turned to my Twitter following (which includes many fellow professors, graduate students and folks who have been touched by academia in one way or another) to ask what an appropriate reading load for a PhD level seminar would be. This resulted in an enlightening and lively discussion. For those scholars who shun social media for scholarly applications, THIS is the reason I stay on Twitter: I can have wonderful, fast-paced, interactive conversations with fellow scholars and learn from them. I would not have had the chance to have this discussion in an asynchronous medium like a conference or even a departmental seminar. I encourage scholars who don’t see the value of using social media (and in this case, Twitter) to read the discussions below (which I created using a tool called Storify).

EDIT: P.F. Anderson tweeted this link to the Chronicle forums where students complain about too heavy reading loads. Fascinating read.

PhD Reading Loads: A Discussion

I am designing two new PhD-level seminars. Because I haven’t taught these types of seminars before, I asked on Twitter what would the appropriate reading load (in number of pages) be for a doctoral seminar. I Storified the tweets from our discussions.

Storified by Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega · Sat, Jul 07 2012 08:01:49

While pondering my questions, a few other scholars asked questions that could help them refine their answer, like “will a student require accomodations?”
@raulpacheco Any students with reading or learning disabilities that will need accommodation? Any other courses?P. F. Anderson
@raulpacheco to whom? Eg what field?Sara Goldrick-Rab
The first question (e.g. how many pages is too many) sparked some really great responses, both from graduate students as well as from professors/academics.
@raulpacheco I’m a grad student not a professor. but reading 10+ pages is agony (in applied math). But I spend 30+ hrs/week doing homework.Mike
@raulpacheco Too much. My experience is no more than 1/3 that (though, I taught stats in nursing where students did 4 courses at once).Jennifer Lloyd
@raulpacheco too much.Valerie Irvine
@raulpacheco I always ask myself what I could do and still have a shot at well-being.Valerie Irvine
@_valeriei @raulpacheco Me too. But I’ve learned that what I could do myself as an expert biases my judgem’t about what’s fair for students.Jennifer Lloyd
@JEVLloyd @raulpacheco yes BUT they don’t have the workload we do. So it equals out.Valerie Irvine
@raulpacheco 400-500 pages per week per seminar about right depending on field @pfandersonMichelle S
@cyberslate @raulpacheco That sure wouldn’t be mathematics or computer science. ;) Humanities? Sure.P. F. Anderson
@raulpacheco then yes 400 pages right on the money @pfandersonMichelle S
@cyberslate @raulpacheco For seminar, with skimming, superficial reading, well structured articles, fast reader can keep up. IMHO. :) P. F. Anderson
@pfanderson um… Both. Depending how much secondary literature expected. @raulpachecoMichelle S
@cyberslate @raulpacheco 2ndary lit is a good point. In grad school, I always dug into the bibs of required articles.P. F. Anderson
@cyberslate @raulpacheco This says 750 pages/week TOTAL for 3 classes F. Anderson
@cyberslate @raulpacheco "2nd year grad student in humanities PhD. For some courses, reading loads >200 pages/wk.";topic=85581.0P. F. Anderson
@pfanderson seems light | grad schools vary greatly in course work and load | PhD level shouldn’t skim rather synthesize @raulpachecoMichelle S
@raulpacheco, it’s not the number of pages but the quality and relevance of the assigned readings.Salvador Espinosa
@raulpacheco if u don’t want to spark a revolution: PhD 200-250; MA 100-125. Also, reco modulate volume based on rhythms of the year/term.Josh Greenberg
@raulpacheco Too much. Assign less but have them read "deeper"; assign reading responses or divide the readings as suggested by @_valerieiJenny Shaw
@raulpacheco Number depends on equation density for me. Also, I’m kinda trying to do research as PhD student, coursework takes a backseat.Sarcozona
We also discussed volume of readings across all levels (undergraduate through graduate).
@raulpacheco as a grad student that would have been overly onerous. An undergrad? No waycaparsons
Not 1st year! I vary for course/year. Increases 100+ level of course. @raulpachecojanniaragon
@raulpacheco I’ve got my 4th years at under 100 pages/week. If I gave them more, no way that they’d read anythingcaparsons
@ScottTimcke @raulpacheco @caparsons @janniaragon ultimately reading req’s shld reflect objective. I pref volume for comps, depth for class.Josh Greenberg
During our discussions, PhD student Scott Timke made a good point
@raulpacheco @caparsons @janniaragon @josh_greenberg, When did a book a week per class become unreasonable?Scott Timcke
To which Professor Josh Greenberg (Carleton University) responded
@ScottTimcke @raulpacheco @caparsons @janniaragon a) when unis hiked tuition, reduced funding & drove more students into non-acad labourJosh Greenberg
@ScottTimcke @raulpacheco @caparsons @janniaragon b) when grad programs started to fill with students who don’t aspire for jobs in academeJosh Greenberg
@ScottTimcke @raulpacheco @caparsons @janniaragon c) it has always been unreasonable – students just say so now instead of grin & bear itJosh Greenberg
Chris Parsons is completing his PhD in Political Science at University of Victoria, and he shared his view as well on this particular point. The discussion on one book a week seemed to spart a lot of responses (including Dr. Lenore Newman, Canada Research Chair in Food Studies at University of the Fraser Valley)
@ScottTimcke @raulpacheco @janniaragon @josh_greenberg I’m from a diff discipline, but 1 book a week seems excessive. We did 2-3/termcaparsons
@josh_greenberg @ScottTimcke @raulpacheco @caparsons @janniaragon I expect a lot from my student, but don’t judge by # of pages.Lenore Newman
@josh_greenberg @ScottTimcke @raulpacheco @caparsons @janniaragon Density of readings, importance, relevance more important than # of pages.Lenore Newman
From here, responses included the hashtag #PhDCourseReadingLoad
@raulpacheco @josh_greenberg @caparsons @janniaragon @_valeriei @pfanderson, I will reply using #PhDCourseReadingLoadScott Timcke
I agree that 1) there is alot of posturing "back in my day" with reading loads & 2) conditions have changed. #PhDCourseReadingLoadScott Timcke
3) Further, its not about pages, but about quality, the discipline, and objectives #PhDCourseReadingLoadScott Timcke
But controlling for those factors, I think the generation of new knowledge in new venues plays a role #PhDCourseReadingLoadScott Timcke
eg, wt a course on modern philosophy, a student can buy a second hand copy of the social contract fairly easily #PhDCourseReadingLoadScott Timcke
A new book on sound studies will be considerably more expensive. Hence profs likely to assign articles over books #PhDCourseReadingLoadScott Timcke
However, good articles for undergrads are hard to come by, and are not sufficient, hence more articles required #PhDCourseReadingLoadScott Timcke
That’s me for the moment. Over and out. #PhDCourseReadingLoadScott Timcke
@ScottTimcke I really like your thoughts on #PhDCourseReadingLoad Thanks for continuing conversationP. F. Anderson
Some great suggestions on how to make reading loads for PhD-level courses more manageable were also shared.
@raulpacheco @jevlloyd if you want to squeeze in that much. Divide it up and have them each make summaries to share.Valerie Irvine
Review syll of colleagues for dept norm, too. @raulpachecojanniaragon
I looked for norm across Canada & then faculty of So Sci at UVic. I def assigned too much prior to this. @raulpachecojanniaragon
What became clear from my request for feedback and the discussion it ensued was how much variation there is (and how little consensus) on how much reading is too much. But one thing is for certain: my colleagues made it clear that regardless of amount of reading, one should make sure that the readings are relevant, dense in content and manageable within a 3-4 courses/term courseload.
@cyberslate @raulpacheco I would read the conversation at the Chronicle link I sent, and inform the decision from that. Not a consensusP. F. Anderson
@cyberslate @raulpacheco That Chronicle forum link was fascinating. Huge differences in what was acceptable reading loads per week.P. F. Anderson
To everyone who participated in the #PhDCourseReadingLoad discussion: THANK YOU!

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