Reorienting Workload Discourse

At this time of year — with big events on weekends and bizarre weather — it can feel hard to sit down and plow through homework. If you happen to be in a humanities class, you might often find yourself heading to class thinking, “who has actually finished all the reading?” Many courses assign infeasible amounts of readings to such an extent that even the professor will explicitly state that they would be not be surprised if many people hadn’t finished for class. Why is this the norm? Rigor does not necessitate large volumes of work. Certainly, classes should push and stretch our limits, but in what directions? There is value to learning to read quickly, but that alone is not a very worthwhile goal. Often, it feels like we are being pushed to consume volumes of literature or articles, merely for the sake of volume. The value of reading a lot, and often, should not be understated, but there is something lost when you are reading to finish, instead of attempting to do any sort of comprehensive understanding.

This phenomenon of volume over depth also seems to occurs in many STEM classes. For instance, there is often extensive amount of “busy work” in classes, particularly with pre-labs, lab reports, problem sets, quizzes and exams. While repetition and simply doing practice problems is critical to developing an understanding of most sciences, the amount of random small assignments from multiple classes put together often becomes overwhelming. Perhaps there is no limit to the benefits of practice, but that does not mean that there should not be a limit within specific classrooms — we should still be questioning and forming a sense of what is simply too much.

It feels difficult to speak up about workload at Amherst. It’s both over-discussed and under-discussed. Any mention of workload has almost become an irritation in and of itself, as the frequency in which we talk about it has made it appear to be an object of too much attention — just another thing we complain about. Yet, for all we do talk about it, formally and informally, has anything actually changed? Is this how a college education is meant to be? When students complain about workload, one might argue that we are simply acting entitled — that these complaints are only rooted in a desire to make things easier for ourselves. Yet, the Editorial Board is convinced that we should not dismiss being overwhelmed as the natural state of being a college student. Questioning workload in a real and thoughtful way — bringing up this topic with individual professors and advocating with administrators — is critical to improving the quality of the education we will receive during our time here. This is not a call for the College to abolish homework, but a nudge for students and faculty to talk more candidly about what actually feels reasonable and unreasonable in their individual classes. This problem is hyper-specific to student and to semester, but that does not mean we should not try address it every time it (unsurprisingly) reappears; in fact, the specificity demands ongoing attention and honest dialogue. Perhaps then we could be stretched in more valuable ways — stretched in ways that last, and ways that kindle a true passion for lifelong learning.