Burnout: Reigniting the Flame

The Editorial Board addresses student burnout, arguing that collaboration between professors and students may be the best way forward.

When Amherst made its rapid shift to remote learning in Spring 2020, one of the greatest difficulties the college faced was modifying lesson plans for classes that would now be all-online. How would discussions work? Group projects? How could professors keep students attentive for lectures that often felt little more engaging than watching a Khan Academy video?

These were tough questions that few professors could come up with answers to on their own — especially after being flung into a fully remote learning environment with little warning from the administration. And so, they turned to the student body to provide answers.

In most classes, these conversations were pretty straightforward. Professors would ask students what they felt would be most conducive to learning in this new format or provide space for students to express new concerns brought up by distance. Lesson plans would often change drastically; sometimes that meant reducing the number of discussions or lectures, increasing collaborative work outside of class, or shifting the way coursework was evaluated.

The most innovative aspect of this system was that classes became, in a sense, collaborative projects between the professors and their students, wherein lessons were theoretically optimized and balanced for everyone in the class. While students may have been struggling with the difficulties of connecting with the material from afar or maintaining the social relationships that they’d had on campus, the professor-student relationship became more of a partnership than ever before.

This semester, however, many courses have reverted back to their previous curricula sans student input — some of which are several years old without having had any major adjustments. And while this sense of continuity may be a relief for professors who no longer have to do all their work over Zoom, it brings academic life at the college back to its old, constant breakneck pace. Certainly the students — and we imagine many professors as well — have found this to bring more stress than comfort.

The effects of this return to the old have been made evident as students overwhelmingly express feelings of burnout, often at levels they hadn’t expected or haven’t experienced before the pandemic. For many — including several of us at The Student — this past couple of weeks has been a constant struggle to stay on top of work as we slowly but surely inch toward a much-needed break. The constant back-and-forth between overworking and recovery, sometimes referred to by students as a “work hard, play hard” mentality, is not a sustainable way to live, and, as we have seen from pandemic-era classes, not a necessary one either.

Unprecedented student burnout, while not entirely unexpected following a year of remote and hybrid learning, is a blow to the academic and inquisitive culture of the college, especially given the more fluid environment that had developed when learning was remote. It makes students less likely to participate in class or even show up at all, and has surely played a role in the college’s mental health care system being overwhelmed this semester.

While some increase in burnout is unavoidable following all we’ve been through over the past year, there are still steps we can take to mitigate its impact on our ability to learn. Change, the kind we’re asking for at least, doesn’t have to be a big hassle, nor does it have to be undertaken alone. In fact, it’s better if it isn’t. It’s not lost on us at The Student that the past year has been hard on professors as well and that current student attitudes are impacting teaching at the college. After all, exhausted and disengaged students are harder to teach.

Collaborating with students on curricular design would be a good way for professors to share the burden, if only a little bit. That doesn’t mean we have to throw out that trusty 10-year-old syllabus, but ‘if it ain’t broke’ is not a saying that applies well to the classroom either. There’s always room for fine-tuning, and students should be involved in that process. A first step could be as simple as students and professors taking course evaluations more seriously. Then, instead of being confronted by worried students during midterms about lower-than-expected grades or difficult assignments, problems could be addressed preemptively with early student questions and criticisms of the planned schedule.

We understand that both faculty and students came into this hectic semester unable to foresee the problems precipitated by a return to normal. And we recognize that it may be too late to make this semester a collaborative one, but we hope that in coming semesters, professors will look to us as partners in the project of learning rather than just their charges. It will make learning a more enjoyable process for all of us.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board – (assenting 15; dissenting 0; abstaining 6)