Amherst College's Culture of Busyness

The recently published draft of the college’s strategic plan addresses, among many other issues, the culture of busyness and high achievement that leaves students, staff and faculty short of the time and energy necessary to build the strong community Amherst could and should foster. Yet despite taking perfect aim at this problem, the plan’s strategy for dealing with it leaves a lot to be desired, as it focuses on improving existing resources rather than locating the source of the problem.

I recently received in my campus mailbox an invitation to a workshop called “Thriving Under Stress.” I found this invitation representative of Amherst’s strategy of dealing with overworked students: While thriving under stress is indeed an important skill, why should we as Amherst students be required to use it all the time? I would contend that most of us already do a damn good job of thriving under stress as is. The strategic plan suggests “creating teams of first-year students through which they will learn of campus services.” Any focus on better developing campus resources or better informing students about their existence misses the mark.

The Counseling Center is a valuable resource that I have utilized, and, as the recent theater and dance thesis “Destiny” pointed out, it could be better staffed, have better hours and be less stigmatized. But why wouldn’t we want to target the problem of busyness at its source? Perhaps even start with a soft request for professors to lighten their curricula. This already proves a necessity when faced with snow days, or even just the realization that their demands on students are unrealistic for the limited amount of time we have together. Instead of straining existing resources with students overworked to the point of emotional breakdown, a lighter workload could open up the Counseling Center and other campus resources to problems without such a simple fix, like low-income students and students of color feeling unwelcome in a culture dominated by white affluence.

The idea of a weekly hour for “community gatherings,” as the plan also suggests, has merit, yet I fear that it would not be enough. If I have an essay due, or a 200-page reading that I haven’t done yet, what would stop me from blowing off this hour to focus on work instead? The draft itself recognizes the “motivation for excellence” common among Amherst students as if it’s a problem. It is not our motivation that is the problem; it is the unrealistic expectations that we feel bound to meet. The Day of Dialogue was a success in that it put the needs of the community over its daily obligations. Provost Uvin’s follow-up, however, did not offer this, and as a result I, and many of my peers, simply felt too busy to attend.

Unlike the fall semester, with its long weekends and other opportunities for time off, the spring semester is one long stretch interrupted briefly and singularly by spring break, by which time many students (myself included) feel like zombies going through the motions of an education, synthesizing little. I believe that the college community would greatly benefit from more unstructured time: One suggestion that comes to mind, the return of Mountain Day, was raised recently by The Amherst Student editorial board. The Valley is a beautiful place to go to college, and Amherst could encourage its appreciation through a day devoted to its exploration, with transportation resources provided and recommendations for hiking, bird-watching and other outdoor activities. The culture of busyness should not be treated with metaphorical Band-Aids, but with a real hard look at its root causes and many manifestations.