So Many Essays, No Time to Learn

Like so many Amherst students, I am all too familiar with 4 a.m. The kind of 4 a.m. where you’re hunched over a desk, accompanied only by your notes and a mug of lukewarm coffee. You’ve stared at a computer so long you can’t tell what the words you wrote just a few hours ago even mean. You’ve refreshed Facebook for the 80th time. I’ve been at Amherst for three months, and I’ve already had my share of those nights. Upperclassmen assure me it gets worse.

So, on Monday, Oct. 6, the morning after I’d stayed up late completing a take-home exam for Spanish and had woken up early to practice bass, I was irritated to check my email and have Dean of New Students Rick López ask me and the rest of my class, “Are you putting in enough time?” I was more frustrated when, according to this email, I was not. Dean López says that students should be completing an average of 10 hours of outside work per week for every course. So, for a standard course load, 40 hours a week of homework.

That means six hours of homework a day, provided I take something of a Sabbath and only complete four on Saturday. That’s a ludicrous amount of time, especially for Amherst, a liberal arts college, which preaches balancing schoolwork with unstructured learning. But, whatever, Amherst is all about rebranding its image. I’m a new student in a new class; if the message Amherst wants to send to us is that we’ll work to the point of exhaustion, fine. We’ll be scholars, alone in our rooms, sipping Earl Grey tea and poring over leather copies of Søren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.” When we’re up at 4 a.m., meticulously crafting essays on Danish philosophy, we’ll appreciate it, damn it, because that’s what a college education is about.

Fast forward two weeks. It was Monday, Oct. 20. This time, I was not surprised to check my email and see Dean López tell the class of 2018 to complete four to eight hours of homework each day. But I was frustrated to, in addition to that, be told to exercise every day. I was even more frustrated to be told I should be getting at least eight hours of sleep per night.

Let me put that in perspective. I’m in class or at my job an average of five hours a day, not atypical among Amherst first-years. Six hours of homework, one hour of exercise and eight hours of sleep puts me at 20. Give me an hour to shower and get ready for the day, an hour break from my 6 of studying, a half hour for breakfast, a half hour for lunch, an hour for dinner… and, look, I’m out of time. There’s my day.

If Amherst expects its students to lead balanced, healthy, fulfilling lives, this schedule just is not possible. If it preaches 40 hours of homework a week, there is no way it can expect us to be well rested. It’s one thing to assign a massive amount of work; it’s another to deny its impact.

When students are doing 40 hours of homework and sleeping 56 hours every week, there is no time left for anything non-academic. I wouldn’t be able take an extra long shower or call my mom, let alone take advantage of on-campus activities or pursue my non-classroom interests. I should feel guilty for writing this article because it took up time I should have spent studying.

With the schedule Dean López lays out, I can’t spend time chatting in the common room. I shouldn’t even learn the names of my floormates. Attending speeches or campus events would be rare. Joining clubs would be irresponsible. Playing on a varsity team would be impossible. Walks into town? Strolls through the Mead? Chats over coffee? Out of the question. An hour on Netflix means I’ve failed as a student.

If this is the schedule Amherst students are supposed to maintain, why did Amherst build the Powerhouse? Why does it bring in speakers and musicians? Why does it fund extracurriculars? Dean López’s emails contradict what the administration has preached in its brochures, its tours, its welcome speeches. They also contradict everything we’ve learned about leading a healthy lifestyle.

There are not enough hours in the day to live up to the administration’s expectations. If Amherst expects a full workweek’s worth of homework, it needs to acknowledge the sacrifices that come with it. The first is sleep, because as students, our lives involve so much more than just schoolwork.

College to me, and I’m sure most students, meant becoming engaged in an environment. I was excited to take classes, yes, but also to, you know, meet people, make friends and have conversations about things other than school. The implication of these emails is that a social life is unnecessary.

Amherst students, by virtue of being human, cannot be expected to follow Dean López’s schedule and lead meaningful lives. These messages blatantly contradict the effort the school has put into building a community and funding activities. And they are extremely insulting to us as students as they deny the toll a heavy workload takes on one’s sleep schedules and imply that nothing should matter to us but schoolwork.