The Editorial Board spent this weekend commiserating about the mid-semester exhaustion that inevitably strikes each semester but feels particularly intense given the circumstances of this time. Our weekly editorial meeting on Monday became an almost therapeutic session of airing out our mid-semester struggles, and we felt compelled to call on the administration to give the Amherst community a break. In light of the Mammoth Day announcement yesterday, Oct. 13, we seem to have successfully manifested our desired break.
We have now decided to use this editorial to make a different call, not to the administration but to the rest of the community: to Amherst’s students, faculty and staff.
Take your break. Don’t use this time to catch up on work or get ahead. Get outside, call a friend -- break away from the confines of what your life has been for the past several months and will likely be for the next several months as well. For on-campus students, the college has organized hiking and outdoor bonding time, and we suggest that you truly make use of that space if you can.
On Oct. 14, of last year, the Amherst College community was six weeks into the school year and three days into Fall Break, recovering from the inevitable exhaustion that we all experience as a result of the mid-semester slump. This year, we are eight weeks into the school year, running on fumes, eyes burning from hours on end of remote learning, having had almost no time outside our rooms or our homes due to the constancy of the pandemic and the online setting of our classes and work. Mammoth Day is an opportunity to interrupt this cycle.
Like many other members of the Amherst community, we, the Editorial Board, spend our time trapped on a screen, between classes, meetings and other work, all the while staying inside and sitting. When we finally do get away from our work, we’re assailed with the stresses and worries that come with living through not only a pandemic that has taken over one million lives around the globe and over 215,000 within the U.S. alone, but also arguably the most important election in modern history, an election which will determine whether the world’s longest-standing democracy and preeminent global power can slow its current descent toward autocracy.
Not only are we bombarded with national chaos, which has become an ongoing source of 2020 anxiety, but recently, we have also felt the emotional toll of events closer to home. Twice in one week, the Amherst community experienced anti-semitism and acts of hate. On Saturday, Oct. 10, swastikas were found carved into a table at the Book and Plow Farm. Two days later, on Monday, Oct. 12, a gathering of Trump supporters at the nearby Amherst Town Common featured nazi imagery and salutes, according to several students who witnessed it.
Surely, this year, amid all of this added stress, the Amherst community needs a break more than ever. Now that you have been given the opportunity, you need to take it.
Students, faculty and staff alike need time not only to rest but to process all that’s going on in the world around them outside the rooms they experience every day. Ironically, as we passed World Mental Health Day this past Saturday, many community members had little time to truly focus on their own mental health as they hurriedly began projects for next week as part of the ever-constant grind that is online learning.
To spend this break in front of a screen, catching up on work would be to miss the point entirely. A 2017 study found that adults ages 20 to 35 were most at risk of developing depression and that risk heightened when they reached four hours per day of screen time and almost doubled when they spent six or more hours per day on screens. While these risks were reduced amongst older demographics, regardless of age, screen time led to an increased likelihood of depression, meaning this constant remote communication is taking a toll on faculty and staff, too. Women and low-income people were found to be at the highest risk.
A more recent study has shown that screen use among ages 18 to 34 has jumped up to an average of 8.8 hours per day, certainly a troubling number judging by the evidence linking screen time to mental health problems.
All of this suggests that truly making use of your break will do more to enhance your mental health than the short-term happiness that will come from starting that next assignment a day early. We need some time away from our computers, hopefully, to be used sitting outside, exercising or doing something else to better our current predicament.
After all, students are not just academic robots, though we may unfortunately feel that way at times. In fact, Amherst College students are known for their involvement in different aspects of the world, even in contributing to the college directly. Take this Editorial Board, whose Tuesday nights are often marked by sleep deprivation, all because of a passion for producing a well-reported and cogently delivered roundup of the week’s stories. Other examples abound for the level of non-academic commitments that Amherst students pursue that ultimately serve as the glue of this college. But eight weeks into the semester, as our fingers ache from typing emails and our Zoom fatigue hits all-time highs, these passions cannot be cultivated the way they should be.
While all of this screen time cannot be mitigated in its entirety given the current circumstances, taking full advantage of a day off will allow students, faculty and staff to collect themselves before making that final push. We, the Editorial Board, strongly urge each and every member of this community to use this day to recharge and relax, outside and away from the screens that have become the primary tools of our pandemic work environment.
This far into the semester, we’ve been (maybe subconsciously) operating on the logic that because we had half of last semester to get accustomed to this new academic world, we should be unfazed by this new normal now. There has been a relentless, and honestly stomach-churning, push to make things feel normal. In some ways, it’s a good thing — like the Late Night Val initiatives on campus and the fall care packages allegedly being sent out to remote students.
While it can feel nice to cling to at least some of the academic structures that we are used to, there are some places where normalcy simply does not belong. Last year, it may have made perfect sense to use a break to get ahead and give your future self a leg up; this year, that is no longer the case.
Taking this day off is a small step we can all take to eliminate the workaholism that has always been characteristic of our school but seems to have become all the more noxious amid an online learning environment where there never seems to be quite enough time after finishing one assignment to take a pause before starting the next.
Taking a break is not a ridiculous demand of yourself — it is just one day. A day to recuperate physically, mentally and emotionally. A day to process the world around you rather than numb your fear with academic (but also stressful) distractions. The notion that losing a day to work would be a monumental sacrifice is only a symptom of Amherst’s (and America’s) ongoing culture of workaholism that penetrates so many aspects of life at this school. The problems with that culture are not something that can be solved for everyone in a day. But at least for yourself, for the next 24 hours, challenge the voice of toxic hyper-productivity. Just take a break.
Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 8; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 6)