In the final stretch before Thanksgiving Break, students and professors report feelings of intense burnout due to seemingly never-ending deadlines and overbooked schedules. Increased frequency of midterms, fatigue from a semester’s worth of work, return to the in-person pace of life, and the constant mental burden of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic are all factors that have left Amherst’s students and faculty counting down the days until the week-long break.
Even though professors are partially responsible for students’ workload, they have also shared in the unhealthy levels of exhaustion. Professors and students alike have endured weeks of busy schedules filled with in-person classes and extracurriculars. Further, the persistence of certain Covid-19 restrictions means that students and professors are still facing the tremendous difficulties of learning and teaching during a pandemic.
One reason why students feel more encumbered this semester is that the required course load has increased from three to four classes this semester. In an attempt to return to academic normalcy, these policy changes have intensified students’ academic load this year. Charlie Sutherby ’23E noted, “I was more intentional with the balance of my workload this semester during course selection knowing that we had to take four classes rather than three classes. But it’s still been a grind.”
Grace Tarantola ’23 concurred with Sutherby: “The workload is definitely a lot more than last year, just now that we have to take four courses instead of three.” Furthermore, many students feel that this workload has piled up even more in recent weeks. Daniel Oo ’24 said that the number of deadlines students currently have depends on which classes they are taking.“I’ve heard from some people taking multiple math courses that they have math midterms just one day after another this week. For me, everything's also just lined up this week.”
While he feels grateful that in-person extracurricular activities have resumed, he also notes how they have further compounded his workload. “It took me like all of two weeks of being back on campus to be overwhelmed with how many things I had to do. The crazy week to week time suck of all the extracurriculars has just reduced the time I can actually spend on academics. If this was a semester ago, my workload would totally be manageable, but now I just have half the number of hours in my week to work with,” Sutherby said.
Sutherby noticed that the greater number of assignments due has manifested in increased stress in both students and professors. “I had a professor cancel our final paper last week. She said that’s had more students request extensions for that paper than she's ever had before across all of her classes,” he said. “This return to normalcy is definitely a big deal for a lot of students, and it’s the same case for professors, like I see them struggling to keep up with work. Definitely there's a bit of a shock coming back to a more normal semester after last year.”
Fiona Anstey ’24 echoed Sutherby’s sentiment that work has been particularly demanding in the past couple weeks. “I have lots of deadlines coming up before and after Thanksgiving, and that's definitely been affecting my mental state because I’m often thinking about deadlines and work that I have to get done. I'm worried that I won't be able to take a real break because I'm going to be thinking about deadlines and work. And I'd much rather be able to take a real break and enjoy Thanksgiving with my family.”
Tarantola posited that this stress is harder to handle because many Covid-19 restrictions are still in place. “There are all these Covid restrictions that we still have to follow,” she said. “The fear of getting in trouble on top of also having to do all this extra schoolwork is definitely a lot on all the students.”
Psychology professor Matthew Schulkind has noticed increased stress levels among his students during this semester more generally, but particularly in recent weeks. “I started the semester thinking that I was going to try and teach as though it were a normal regular semester, and for probably about two weeks everyone seemed to be in a pretty good mood, especially compared to last year, which was kind of grim,” he said.
Schulkind noted that although public health conditions are “better than last year,” his students and coworkers are still feeling ongoing pandemic-related stressors. “People are still pretty stressed and uncomfortable. I wouldn't say [that] they are less motivated, but [they] are definitely overwhelmed,which interferes with their ability to really get stuff done,” he stated.
Schulkind continued, “So I would say that right now, kids are up against it. This is always a hard time of the year, as is coming back from Thanksgiving, but I would say this year the dip has been a little deeper than normal.”
Just like Tarantola, Schulkind believes that the semester is more tiring than usual due to the constant mental strain of the pandemic. “The thing about the virus is it affects so many decisions, and affects your thinking so many times throughout the day. I just think after so many months of doing that, it's just tiring,” he said. “And so situations come up, like having multiple assignments due on the same day, which you guys were used to managing in a normal semester, but now I think it's more difficult because because of the accumulated wear and tear of so many decisions, and so many stressful moments and so many issues that you have to consider on a regular basis.”
As a consequence of all the day-to-day stressors, Schulkind worries that his teaching quality has been negatively affected. “I think there are semesters where I’ve been a better teacher than I have been this semester. I’m trying to let that go. I'm trying to say okay, maybe I've done a better job in the past, but I'm working as hard as I can, and that's going to be enough.”
Ecology professor Ethan Temeles also described greater difficulty teaching this semester, particularly because of the indoor mask mandate. “Humans communicate with their faces, and masks prevent us from seeing each other’s faces, so there’s no stimulus that you get back. And if you're a professor interacting with students and trying to get feedback, you're missing that,” he said. “When I lecture, I very much look at people's faces, and if I see somebody frown, I’ll repeat something or say it in a different way. So now there’s just the general feeling of something doesn't feel right.”
Like Schulkind, Temeles sympathizes with students about the amount of emotional strain imposed by the pandemic. “If you can get through this, it should teach you that you can probably cope with a lot, because it's hard for me to imagine stuff as worse than this.”
Students hope that professors’ awareness about community-wide burn-out will inspire them to be more flexible with deadlines. Tarantola hopes that professors, “Will be more understanding when students ask them for extensions, or when they say, ‘I'm really struggling at this point.’ They shouldn’t just just be like, ‘You have to get through it and just manage on your own.’”
Sutherby agreed with Tarantola’s sentiment: “I think professors can be more forgiving and flexible and recognize that people are struggling to return to normalcy at an institutional level. Either by easing the work per class, or just [seeing the college revert back] to the three versus four class requirements, could really help.”
“A lot of people I've talked to pretty intentionally choose a fourth class to be kind of like a throwaway class,” he added. “That’s just kind of like a waste of time when you could have three classes that you're really much more invested in and feel actually meaningful because you’re curious about them or they challenge you in the right ways.”
Sutherby feels that these changes could alleviate many of the pressures that students experience because of the hard-working, over-achieving culture at Amherst. “Even in my fourth year at Amherst, I still feel an impulse to always be doing more, even though I'm very conscious of the fact that I would like to be doing less.”
While this culture is not likely to go away any time soon, Schulkind hopes that students will take off some of the pressure they put on themselves to keep up with everything. “It is unrealistic to let go of stressing about grades entirely, and that is one of the sources of self esteem that you've had all these years. But just give yourself a little bit more space. Say, okay, in another semester, another time, I might have done something differently, I might have done better. But this is where I am now. I worked hard. And that just has to be enough.”