The Carpenter Reading Room on the third floor of Bostock Library is an “absolute silence area” during even slow times of the semester. An overloud cough can generate a stare, an unmuted phone chime, defenestration—for at least the phone.

But during reading period in mid-December, the Carpenter atmosphere is so thick you can barely breathe. Anxiety hangs in the air like mist. Every table is full, as are most of the armchairs, usually in pairs, students stretched across. Every place at every table the same: computer, phone, piles of notes, pens, highlighters, at least one carryout cup of coffee. Photocopied sheets with highlighted lines in binders, spreadsheets on screens, maybe even a few actual books. And the students move from one to the next: screen, notes, book, phone, printout. Type. Read. Check. Type some more.

Reading week. Well, technically it’s not a week, though “reading week” rolls off the lips more smoothly than “reading period.” According to Duke archivists, it’s a period that has accordioned in length over recent decades, anywhere from a day to a few days, usually including a weekend. But the sense remains the same: a few days when classes have ended and finals haven’t yet begun. (For undergrads; graduate reading period is longer, usually that full week.) A yawning period of nothing scheduled. The library is open twenty-four hours, food is on offer constantly, and all you have to do is study.


“You know,” says dean of students Sue Wasiolek ’76, M.H.A. ’78, LL.M. ’93, “I was a freshman in 1973, and I vividly remember the reading period. It was a time that my roommate and I baked cakes.”


“We would just have sort of this ongoing study break, where we would…we baked probably twelve, fifteen cakes, and we would decorate them and deliver them to our friends,” continues Wasiolek, familiarly known as Dean Sue.

So, okay. Maybe there’s another side to this reading period.

“My experience as a student and also as faculty in residence is that it’s also a time for students to take a deep breath,” says Wasiolek.

To that end, Duke Athletics puts on a “Paws for Exams” programs, bringing dogs to the K Center classroom for athletes to pet, which studies show lowers blood pressure and reduces muscle tension. The East Campus Marketplace offers “Tea-laxation” (free tea and relaxation); special sponsored study halls appear at places like the Nasher Museum; and various libraries, dorms, and other entities offer cookie breaks. The “Midnight Breakfast” at the Marketplace starts at 11 p.m. and has lines that stretch across the quad (this year it even ran out of T-shirts). DuWell, which takes an integrative approach to student health, sponsors coloring and meditation. Miniature therapy horses, which are actually a thing, visited Lilly Library in a “Stampede of Love,” and Wasiolek had a study break with dogs at her G-A apartment.

But even the breaks can raise stress, according to Alicia Santana, an East Campus residence coordinator. “They talk a lot about mixed messages,” she says. “The library is open twenty-four hours, but there are multiple study breaks.” Students seem to be asking, wait: am I supposed to be studying or breaking? Both, of course, and the students have opinions. Santana informally polled her resident assistants and students about reading period and found “for the most part they said students used Saturday and Sunday to just procrastinate, but then Monday and Tuesday they were stressed.” Overall, though, students respond as you’d expect Duke students to respond: “They’re just trying to have the right answer. Unfortunately, there is no right answer. You have to learn to time-manage.”

So we took strolls through campus during reading period to see this time management in action.


Perkins, Third Floor

Leaning over the wall of a carrel at which a friend is working on a computer on a desktop overspread with data sheets and printouts, senior computer science major Riley Cohen stands, stretches, and carries his paper cup of coffee with a plastic lid over to his own carrel. He’s a little wired: “I had a project due at 3 a.m.,” he says, smiling. “All the projects are due at 3 a.m.” in his computer classes, which at least keeps them from conflicting with other deadlines. Like for the project he’s working on, building an app that will filter songs according to more than just artist or genre but things like tempo.

As for the intensity of reading period: “It really varies year by year,” he says. “At the beginning of my time at Duke, I found work was less project-based, so reading week was sort of a crunch.” With four finals staring down at him, tension rose and stayed high. Now with a more project-based curriculum, each term “the hardest part of those projects is to find time when everyone is free and no one has class.” With the predictable result: “Ultimately, you end up putting it off and saying, ‘We’ll figure it out during reading week.’ ”

Which they then actually do. “It’s nice to be able to work uninterrupted: no classes, no little assignments due. You can just work uninterrupted.” Reading week has a clear end, after which everything is done for the term. “Whereas during the year, you finish one and you know another one is coming right at you. It’s a good feeling to work through it, and you have that clear goal in mind.” He estimates he’s sleeping seven hours a night and eating two meals a day. But the open area around the bridge between Perkins and Bostock is filled with people working on projects like his; the carrels and tables seem to embrace the printouts of comp sci classes. Even better, he tends to be working on projects with his friends.


Lilly, Second Floor

At 8 p.m. the doors to the room off the entrance to Lilly Library open and a crowd of East Campus studiers pours in. They scavenge table after table stacked with cookies, chips, crackers, pretzels, candy. And fruit and veggies and dip, too, but…you know. Cookies and candy, much of it home-baked by the librarians and local members of the Duke Campus Club, which organized the study break.

The initial swarm returns to its studies, but periodically a new burst populates the room. “They sit down at their table, and someone says, ‘Where’d you get that?’ ” says librarian Lee Sorensen. “So they come in waves.” He describes his work with students during reading period as “library triage: things they should have been doing all semester they suddenly need.” He can help them figure out which of their information needs are solvable, and how to sort through priorities, always gently. “I’ve never in my career told a student they should have started sooner.” On the other hand, students, especially on East Campus, where freshmen live, are occasionally simply overwhelmed. “I’ve had people come up and say, ‘You have a student down there crying.’ ” Well, there are cookies and veggie dip. Will that help?

On the second floor, the Thomas Room is full, and students occupy every desk, chair, and table in the lounges and interstitial spaces throughout the library. At one table overlooking the information desk, Brian Anaya, a freshman premed, and Ying Yu, a freshman with a neuroscience interest, pick at their plates of cookies and think about reading period. “I’ve been here since 11 this morning,” Anaya says. “We took a break for about thirty minutes,” says Yu. “Just for cookies.”

This is reading period, and these guys are for it. “I like it a lot,” Yu says. “I know a lot of our friends say they feel antsy—because they know they should be doing something, but they’re not sure what. But I’m antsy when I don’t study. So making Lilly home for a day seemed like a good thing.”

Anaya agrees. “I don’t feel like I’d be able to study enough for finals without reading period. I honestly don’t think I could.” As for the unstructured time, “I wouldn’t say it’s cool, but it’s nice having a break. I feel, like, in high school I was more stressed about finals than I am now. I have so much more time to study, to be able to do anything. I’m doing a project I was supposed to be doing all semester. I feel like I’ve never been as productive as I’ve been today.” Fear is a great motivator.

Yu, on the other hand, is not only not catching up on a semester-full of missed work; she’s not even behind on her reading-period schedule. Which, yes, she has. “I have chem Thursday, neuro Friday, math Monday. So…” she blushes a bit, “I made a study plan.”

She shows it off: calendar pages with each class given a particular color (math is blue; chem, yellow), and reading, problem, and study goals for each day.


Divinity School, stairs

Where the stairwell between the first and second floors makes a 180-degree turn, junior biomedical engineer Simal Soydan and her friend Angie Lei (also a junior, and an electrical and computer engineering major) sit on the steps and gobble a quick dinner out of takeout containers. It’s midafternoon, so it’s kind of an odd time for…lunch? Dinner? Something?

“Yeah,” Soydan says, laughing. “Because we stayed up very late, and we can’t wake up early, so breakfast and lunch then shift.” No papers for these students: It’s four finals, so it’s nose in the book and no mistake during reading period. “I have four finals, and three of them are STEM,” she says. “They’re all cumulative, so I have to study each one all the way from the beginning.”

“Reading period changes for Trinity versus Pratt,” she says. Trinity students have papers and take-home exams, so they’re the ones watching movies and strolling the grounds as they think through their papers. Pratt students, especially in the early years, are grinding through practice problem sets. “I would prefer to have a paper and two finals rather than four. There is not enough time to study, definitely. We wish we had one more day” of reading period. They barely feel like they have time enough for everything. “That’s why we have our lunch way close to our study space” in the York Chapel in the divinity school. “Perkins is too crowded, and it’s hard to find a place.”

What about just studying at home? They live right next to each other in the Hollows, the new West Campus dorms.

“Math is a class we take together,” Soydan says. “We teach each other and talk, so we stay home.” Though that’s a mixed blessing. “We get too comfortable, and we stop working,” Soydan says, at which point “it’s better to come to the library. You get infected by the environment, and it kind of pushes you.”

Lei has something of a seen-it-all cast to her face. No romance left in reading week? “That might have been freshman year, when you glorify studying,” she says. “Because you were at a new school where everyone was so smart, and your best was no longer the best.

“But now, as an upperclassman, you just want to be through with it.”


Divinity School Library, bottom floor

The student hunkered down so jealously guarded his secret study place that he preferred to remain anonymous, so we will call him Sanders. This degree of protection indicates that the bottom floor of the divinity library, with its concrete floor, single row, along one wall, of carrels with industrial steel shelves, a barely padded office chair, and harsh fluorescent lighting must have some kind of special study qualities.

The divinity library is itself something of a maze, with stairways you cannot find connecting rooms at levels you did not know existed filled with books in languages you do not speak. The entire experience feels like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing, so merely finding the bottom floor clears out a lot of potential study-space competitors. “I discovered it last year,” says the senior policy major, as he studies for a neuroscience exam, “so it took some time.” Even the bookshelves require you to flick on light switches if you wish to peruse a stack, so a little carrel along the wall can feel like a ship at night on a silent, empty sea.

The basement’s general lack of comfort recommends it, he says. “I think that’s a deterrent for a lot of people. A lot of my friends don’t like to come here for that reason.” His own study practice “varies from semester to semester,” he says. “It seems to depend on the number of finals.” If he’s got a bunch of finals, “near the end it can be stressful.” If he’s had mostly essays that term, “it can be one of the most free times,” and he can be like Dean Sue, taking walks, breathing, baking cakes. “Then this is a period to decompress.” Not now, though. He turns back to his neuroscience.


In front of Rubenstein Library gallery space

Sophomore Shannon Smith, a mechanical engineering major, serves on the Honor Council and sits at a table full of tumblers, which council members are distributing to students as encouragement to stay hydrated. “Fill up for Finals,” signs say, and students seem to appreciate the cup. They need it, Smith says: “It’s right before their high-stress exams.” She doesn’t feel like she’s exaggerating. “In my experience, it’s been kind of a complete destruction of routine,” she says of reading period. “All of your rhythms are thrown.”

Though not in a bad way. “Every single week you’re trying to get on top of the next week’s things,” and then suddenly you only have one last set of things to do, and a kind of relaxation sets in as you prepare. “It’s more recovery from the semester than preparation for finals.”

Sitting with Smith, Evan Liu, a sophomore probably majoring in biology, feels similarly. As a premed he’s got a couple of finals, a final paper, and one final project already done, so “honestly, it’s been pretty chill the last couple days.” He says he’s had a disciplined semester, and he doesn’t need to stretch on his finals to get the grades he needs, so he’s seeing more friends, attending breaks like the midnight breakfast, enjoying himself. “I’m getting more rest,” he says. Smith chimes back in. “So much sleep,” she says. “At least ten hours” a night. “It’s ridiculous.”

She’s not necessarily typical, though. “I have some friends who have turned completely nocturnal.”


Dean Sue’s Evening With Dogs

Into the mix of students wedging their way into and out of Dean Sue’s apartment in Gilbert-Addoms, a dog makes its way. “Oh my goodness, another one!” a voice shouts. “Hi! What are their names?” A student dressed as a Christmas tree beams.

It’s Canine Friends night here on the last night of reading period, and the place is mobbed: five dogs and what looks to be about 6,000 students, though estimating a few dozen crammed into the apartment at any one time you’d have a handle on it. Students pocket packets of fruit snacks and Sun Chips, gather armfuls of cookies and brownies from Tupperware containers. Sophomore Sarah Kate Baudhuin has rather a longer-termish look about her, and she explains. “Last year I spent pretty much all reading period here watching Hallmark movies with [Dean Sue],” she says. “We’d have tea, and she’s the brownie master.” She has fewer exams than papers, she says, “so I would hang around here and write. Do a portion, and then watch a movie.”

With her schedule driven by writing rather than by relearning subjects for cumulative exams, “I’ve been enjoying it. Just having this buffer period—just seeing campus in a more relaxed way.” This reading period is perfectly organized, she says: “I have four papers and one exam, and they’re due at staggered times.” She takes long walks, enjoys the feeling of campus. “During the busy-ness of regular semester, I don’t have the time to do that. [Now] I have time to explore, eat at new places.”

She’s at Dean Sue’s not for the dogs, though, or for any ancillary benefit the dogs might bring. “Dean Sue is a big enough draw,” she says. “I’m more of a cat person, myself.” 

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