Too Much Work?

At the Nov. 17 faculty meeting, Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein invited students to speak about academic workload. Students spoke about how they juggled academics alongside work study jobs, familial and personal issues, extracurricular and athletic commitments and sleep. They called on faculty members to be more flexible with deadlines. They spoke about how fear permeated Amherst classrooms. Interestingly, the stories, grievances and suggestions which students shared did not wholly cohere around the idea that we have too much work.

That said, it may be the case that we have too much work. So much work that we cannot think. The sheer amount of time we spend reading and writing may leave little or no time for critical reflection on what we’ve read and written. But it also may be the case that we perceive that we have too much work, that other matters, structures and policies impede our critical inquiry. In other words, we might feel obliged to divide our time between academic thought (broadly understood) and other commitments. Surely, at the best of the liberal arts, the thoughts that we want to work through in and because of our classes should not be limited to the time and space of those classes. Surely we should not be in the business of defensively circumscribing a time and space for academic thought. So, let me pose some questions (and even perhaps a few concrete solutions) about academic workload.

The pragmatic question we must ask is this: How does the college authorize space and time to think outside the classroom? That is to say, what sorts of spaces, options and opportunities do administrators grant or withhold from students that engender or circumscribe critical thought? I pose these questions to take stock of three issues so part of our social fabric here that we may not always think about them: competition, extracurriculars and technology.

Competition – As I noted, at the recent meeting between students and faculty on workload, multiple students exclaimed that fear governed Amherst classrooms. What I suspect constitutes such fear is competition, an academic competition so ubiquitous in the entire American educational system that we usually don’t pay any attention to it.

Competition produces what Meghna Sridhar ’14 in What’s Left at Amherst named “the Amherst work ethic,” an excessive, unhealthy, unreasonable, demanding, self-imposed productivity. It is a competition against others whose manifestation can only come as success, fostering a perverse desire to work absurdly hard at the expense of self-care. It encourages us to dominate and triumph over other students. However, such competition will only turn into success for some, never for all. Some take time off, others drop out, some resign. And for many, competition devolves into envy of others, fear of speaking up, panic at the lack of time or despair of one’s own intellectual thought.

What I think we have to understand is that we cannot and will not succeed in any sort of intellectual project as individuals. What we require is an academic community. A community predicated on the notion that no student can ever master an entire field of study, or even an entire sub-field, limited as we are by this obvious fact: We are not academic gods, but mortal human beings. Any sort of academic or social project this college can aspire to must be predicated on collaboration, not competition, a community constituted by the multitude of different, contradictory and critical questions different students pose.

For the student, passion, desire and love — feelings which aspire to community — should generate intellectual inquiry. Using this piece itself: I don’t write critiques of Amherst because I dislike Amherst. Quite the opposite. I write them because there are some things, events and spaces at Amherst that I very much love and want to see expanded and broadened.

So, as Ryan Arnold ’15 suggested in the Amherst Disorientation Guide, we might consider ending the policy which bases Latin honors on class rank (on the precondition that one writes a thesis). Base it on quality of scholarship. Perhaps we should ensure students are taking courses and completing majors not because they want to get certain jobs but because there are questions those disciplines pose which students desire to answer. In short, let’s ensure that academic policies discourage competition and generate both academic desire and community.

Extracurriculars/Athletics – We have to reconsider the place and role of extracurriculars and athletics at the college. Are they supplementary or complementary to the academic project? This is probably obvious, but: Passing 32 classes will let you graduate from Amherst. Performing in 32 a cappella shows, playing in 32 football games or raising $3,200 for charity will not.

So, we must ask, why 32 courses? To answer that, we must realize that 32 courses is never sufficient to fulfill Amherst’s own intellectual project in any individual student. At best, 32 courses will generate critical inquiry that will manifest itself well beyond the confines of the classroom and Amherst. The walls between curricular and extracurricular are at least porous, at best nonexistent. So figuring out why we are here — what it means to work and study academically at Amherst — requires that we ask about the line between academic and extracurricular activities.

Technology – My generation spends large amounts of time surfing through the abyss known as the Internet. Such time spent is frequently a distraction. At the same time, the Internet and the computer, as technologies, are not neutral to academic thought. While they distract us, they also pose important questions we must think about. In order to have the time to manifest these thoughts, we must have the space to think without those awesome technologies, only within our own minds and in conversation with each other. So the college should create Wi-Fi-free zones. Prohibit hand-held electronic devices in some spaces. Places of leisure, calm and repose, where we cannot be distracted and accelerated by external technologies.

To critically ask whether we are bombarded with too much work is to ask what sort of lived experience Amherst desires for its students. Intertwined with that question is the matter of what we are doing here. The three issues I have raised are necessary ones to discuss if we hope to figure out, as a community, what we are doing here. Especially in light of Amherst Uprising, we have already discovered that it is too late for us not to consider them.