Work hard, work harder?

On my original post about a month ago, I listed items that I wanted to address early in the semester.  I have addressed two of them thus far, and I want to turn, now, to a third: the issue of student workload.

I have heard over the past two years during lunches with students about the “increasing” work load at Middlebury, and how, to some, we are becoming a place that is not in balance—that there is too much academic work assigned, leaving students unable to partake in non-academic pursuits and “have fun.”

The argument I hear most is that faculty are now assigning what has been described as “gratuitous work”—things that do not add to the students’ understanding of the material, but only to the time they need to spend on a course.  The perception voiced frequently is that faculty seem not to know that most students take three other courses and therefore the amount they ask students to do each week is simply too much.

A few things to note on both sides of the issue before I invite students, especially, but others, too, to weigh in on this issue.

  • I have been at Middlebury for 24 years, and I have heard this complaint since I arrived. In fact, I usually hear rising seniors talk about how “smart” and “eager” the first years seem to be about their studies, and how the place is changing. I first heard this in 1984, and it hasn’t stopped.

  • I have spoken with two veteran faculty colleagues, both of whom have taught here for more than 30 years, and asked them this question: has the work load for students increased, in your view, since you arrived here?  Both of them, asked individually, said “no.”  And in fact, one of them even said that he believes he has had to cut some things from what he used to expect from his students.  Each had his or her theories for why students believe that the overall work load has increased, but I am more interested in hearing our students’ perspective.

  • Through my work as dean of the faculty and provost, I was involved directly with the tenure and reappointment review process for many years.  That process includes faculty members up for review submitting dossiers with their professional materials.  Many include their syllabi.  In several cases, it appears as if the traditional assignments that used to make up a course’s “content” have been supplemented as faculty are utilizing new technologies to engage students and have students engage the course materials (such as mandatory postings on class electronic list-serves; searches on the web and of new electronic data bases; etc.). 

  • The rising popularity of the “double major” over the past 10-15 years may be playing some role for those who feel that the workload has increased.  By double majoring, students need to focus on two areas of the curriculum in terms of meeting specific requirements, and therefore have fewer courses to take for “enjoyment,” and, thereby, fewer opportunities to feel less pressure.

  • Some faculty argue that they have indeed become more prescriptive (and expansive) in terms of weekly assignments than they used to be, because, they argue, students are less focused on their work.  If they don’t give specific assignments, they can’t be assured students will do the work, and the atmosphere in class would suffer noticeably.

I am very eager to hear other points of view on this.  One thing is for sure: the student of today, versus the student of 1984 when I arrived here on the faculty, takes the same load each year (four courses a semester and one during winter term).  They do, however, have many, many more opportunities in terms of the number of student organizations they might join, the number of varsity, club, and intramural athletic teams on which they might play, and a whole new world of technology-driven activities to attract their attention.  Video games, on-line social networking, blogging (!), and other technology-infused activities that did not exist in 1984.  Even e-mail, the supposed dinosaur of communications to this generation of students, did not exist: we communicated with administrators through campus (“snail”) mail and with one another by … believe  this … visiting the person’s office, or by calling.  And not with a cell phone.

Just a hypothesis, but maybe the antidote to feeling that there is too much work has to do with exercising more self-discipline in the face of all the information technology-driven distractions that we now take for granted in our daily lives.  Is it possible that the work load has not changed at all, but what has changed is how we spend our time, and more and more of it is being spent on things that didn’t exist even a few years ago?

14 comments

Ron – there’s a lot to say about this issue, and I’m eager to read what students have to say. One point to add to the discussion that I think is worth pointing out, especially when comparing Middlebury to other schools: Midd semesters are 12 weeks long, which is significantly shorter than the 14-15 week semesters elsewhere, and only somewhat longer than 10-week trimesters (where students typically only take 3 courses per term). This leads to workload compression, with less downtime between assignments and more overlap across courses (and for faculty, a heightened intensity of grading & advising). Faculty still try to cover the same amount of material and writing as in a 15-week semester elsewhere, as students still take 9 courses a year like most schools. This structural difference does ratchet up the expectations and stress, for both students & faculty – although the shorter semesters do have other distinct benefits.

And for what it’s worth, I’ve looked at syllabi from colleagues at a number of peer institutions within my discipline – based on this non-scientific sample, Midd courses are not more work-heavy than at other schools, and might be less intensive than some.

Part of the problem, as I have posted on Dean Spears’ wall as well, is that the work seems rather existential. It’s work, work, go to a party that gets busted where kids down large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time because having a beer in their hands is a liability. 4 shots of vodka in 10 minutes decreases the chance of getting caught with alcohol by the school or state.

There isn’t the balance of “work” and “play” that many other schools have. At many, many schools I have visited, (both state and private) or heard about through conversations with friends, kids have more to look forward to on the weekends (i.e. a social life).

My best friend is an Art History major at Williams. She has just as much work as I, but when I talk to her on the phone (yes, my cell :-) ) she’ll say, “gahh, I have all this work, but at least there’s that awesome party in my friends’ suite on Friday and then that huge school one on Saturday.” I have the pleasure of replying, “gahh, I have so much work, too. At least I get to go to a party in my friends’ suite on Friday that’ll get broken up after 15 minutes by public safety and that huge one on Saturday that the liquor inspector will probably show up at.”

I take a lot of science courses, all of which have labs. At many institutions, lab courses grant further credit. I realize that most peer liberal arts colleges do not grant credit based on hours of course work, but I do not think that this should stop Middlebury from considering it.

Because of our course credit system, I am taking two lab courses and additionally taking two non lab courses. At many institutions, I would receive the equivalent of four credits by taking three courses, two of which have labs. I currently have 21 scheduled hours of course time per week, which has regularly been turning into 25 hours per week (finishing labs on subsequent days, checking data, etc). Despite what many believe, time spent in a lab is not part of the assigned work. The general trend, in fact, is that the more time spent in lab, the more work after and outside of lab that must be completed.

Labs generously give assignments of their own — a lab course often feels like two separate courses (lecture and lab) that happen to be teaching on the same subject. Some labs even have a separate final exam from the course. While the lecture component of each course assigns as much work as any of my non-science elective courses, I still spend at least as much time per week with the lab components of the course. Labs are weighted heavily in the course grades (30 to 50 percent usually), in recognition (by professors) of the large amount of time that they require.

My roommate is a good example of the additional work load of lab courses. He is studying math and history, but also fulfilling pre-med requirements. This is his first semester at Middlebury in which he is not taking a lab course. Although his major-required coursework is difficult (including hard problem sets for math and lots of reading for history), he has picked up three part time jobs this semester to fill the void of a lab-free schedule. And he still enjoys a more relaxed and less hurried life than I manage.

I believe that the ability to receive three college credits for every two lab courses would lighten the load to a more reasonable level. I find that I miss out on many activities that my non-science major friends are able to attend. These are not all “fun” activities (to use the quotes as you have). I have rarely had time to attend any guest lectures, for example. My life is structured as economically as possible: I think of every activity in terms of “hours lost that I could have been completing an assignment.”

I do very few academic activities out of pure interest because I must make the choice between completing my work and following an interest. In this way, I feel my education has suffered and I have missed out. Although it seems counter-intuitive, I believe that I would have more of a liberal arts experience if I were required to take fewer courses outside of my lab courses.

I think the issue of “workload compression” due to shorter semesters is real, but I enjoy not starting school till weeks after my friends, in some cases. The real problem, in my opinion, isn’t the absolute workload but the workload relative to all the other things we’re expected (or we perceive we’re expected) to do. The “well-rounded student” is held up as the ideal we’re supposed to achieve, and I know people who try to do it by getting involved in one of everything – a sport, an a cappella group, a volunteer organization, a job. I really don’t know how they do it – I’m in choir, an a cappella group and the ballroom dance club, and I feel like I’m having a good social life if I manage to eat dinner with my friends a few times a week. If my idea of a social life included going to parties every night on the weekend, I’d probably be despairing about Midd’s social scene too. When my parents talk about their college days, as far as I can tell, they worked for the paper, played sports and (usually) went to class. They weren’t also trying to save the world from global warming or eliminate poverty or any of the other socially responsible efforts we take upon ourselves at Midd. My feeling is that no matter how much I’m already doing, I could always be doing more. Most days that’s really exciting, but some days I just wish I could sleep in on the weekend without feeling guilty.

First I want to thank you, Mr. Liebowitz, for putting together a blog. I think it’s a great way to foster open communication.

Having only had two semesters at Middlebury, I don’t feel qualified to answer the question about whether the workload is too strenuous. But let me tell you one thing: as the poster above mentions, Midd kids are definitely busy. And this is generally a good thing but if students are busy in the wrong way, this can be a very, very bad thing.

Allow me to use myself as an example. The night I first read your blog post, I was taking a break from my Edgar Allen Poe reading. My break consisted of facebooking, reading your blog and listen to Cornel West’s new hip-hop cd, all at the same time. Your blog inspired me to start thinking about what my values were on how I wanted to spend my time here at Midd.

Consequently, I stayed up late writing about my experience at Middlebury and then had to stay up even later reading Poe. What I was left with was doing two things half-way. I wasn’t fully alert in my discussion the next day and I didn’t have the time to fully think through my response to your blog posting. In the words of the Stanford professor, Denise Clark Pope (who did research on how students get through High School), I found myself “doing school” instead of enjoying my education. I also didn’t have the time to fully fulfill what I wanted to in terms of my personal non-academic development.

I think this is a general trend at Middlebury. Students find themselves stressed out and “doing school” but they also find themselves with not enough time to do what they love to do outside of the classroom.

I have two solutions to this problem. One is very practical and in my mind, doable. It would be to allow students to take classes pass-fail. I know Brown allows students to this. Obviously, students would not do this for every class because they have to build up a transcript but pass-fail classes take pressure off students and allow them to really learn for the sake of learning instead of “doing school” for the grade.

The next solution I have for this problem growth is very personal. We need to take ownership of our education and learn to prioritize. This means understanding that education transcends the classroom. I have found that the more I write poetry, the more I read worthwhile things outside of class and the more I listen to worthwhile music, the more I can get out of school.

The more you grow in constructive ways outside the classroom, the more you can grow inside the classroom.

So sure watch Soulja Boy’s latest video on youtube if you feel like it, but think about it in terms of what it means to you and our generation. If we all try a little harder to further ourselves as people, Middlebury will rock.

And then the next time the liquor inspector shuts down a social house party, forcing you to drink hard alcohol in your dorm room, you might have something interesting to talk about besides how frustrated you are with the workload and the lack of social life on campus.

Ron,
I appreciate your comments on this interesting topic. I have a similarly lengthy perspective on Middlebury as your own, only as an undergraduate student 30 years ago and the parent of a current undergraduate student. My observation is that the work load at Middlebury is not harder today than in the past. Certainly the semester compression to accommodate Jan term and lack of credit for time spent in labs is the same now as 30 years ago. My offspring, who developed very effective time management skills at a rigorous secondary school, believes many classmates with difficulty completing work are simply inefficient and unfocused when working on classwork, due mainly to attractive distractions from the technology you mention.

There are several factors today that I speculate may cause current students to feel more stressed about their workload. Thirty years ago, it was legal to drink alcohol at 18 in Vermont, so it was possible to “work hard, play hard” then without the added stress present today of dealing with the (I believe) unreasonable rules–the party list comes to mind–of the current liquor inspector and the prospect of imminent raids of social gatherings on campus. Nor was it necessary to drink “underground” or off campus. I think this is a serious current issue for Middlebury that needs to be addressed in a more pro-active manner.

Second, I think my generation of “helicopter parents”, who have assumed a central (controlling?) role in their children’s school lives have likely hindered the development prior to the arrival at Middlebury of the effective time management skills and self-discipline needed to complete classwork efficiently.

Last, I believe studies have shown attention spans have declined somewhat over the years, possibly due to many of the attractive technologies to which you allude, as well as TV remotes, etc. It is very difficult to perform analytical reading and writing when one has difficulty focusing for lengthy periods.

I do not believe Middlebury should attempt to address the issue by reducing current student work loads. The work/life balance issues confronting current Middlebury students pale in comparison to those addressed daily by any working adult, particularly professionals with families, who regularly put in 50+ hours at the office in addition to maintaining a home, providing meals, caring for children, and engaging in volunteer activities. Since most Middlebury students will be joining the ranks of professionals after graduation, it seems to me that the time at Middlebury is a great opportunity to develop and hone in a (dare I say it?) less stressful environment than the working adult world, the time-management skills and ability to focus and work efficiently that are going to be critical to life after Middlebury.

Ron -

Being a senior this year at Midd I think I have a few worthy points to add to this debate (many of which have already been touched on above).

To begin with, I think that regarding workload, the key is to really prioritize your life. What I mean by this is that every student here should really be aware of the activities he or she is involved in, how much time each of those activities requires, and how important each of those activities are. As we all know, some people here participate on varsity sports, some people do plays, some people study all night and get straight A’s, etc. I think every term when registration comes up it’s the responsibility of every student to think hard about each course that they sign up for in conjunction with thinking about what other activities they are involved in at that time. I am strongly of the opinion that it is better to do a few things really well then to do a lot of things poorly; thus sometimes sacrifices have to be made.

If you are on the varsity hockey team, load up your schedule with courses by Prof. Dry, and are heavily involved with multiple clubs on campus, you can’t do all of those things well and then on top of that still have time for a social life. It’s about balance, really. If you take 3 really difficult courses in one semester, you can’t expect to get an A in all 3 without putting in a tremendous amount of time (maybe much more time then you think is really healthy). My solution, then, is to not do that. Spread out your schedule, make sure that you combine reading intensive courses with others that don’t have so much reading, etc. Particularly for single majors, I think there is without question plenty of flexibility to do this.

For me, personally, I would say that I really care about doing my academics well, and I also really care about having time to hang out with my friends and have a great social life. I do a few other things around campus, but nothing so heavily or intensely that it really impedes too much on those core activities. I understand that about a third of our campus is involved in a varsity sport, and if I had to imagine throwing all of the time commitment of practices, games, etc. on top of my current schedule, I can certainly see it adding up really quickly. But my point, really, is that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’m a double major, but had I been a varsity athlete, I think I would have thought a lot longer and harder about the extra work that that entails.

The average 4 class schedule (no P/F, either, this is Middlebury, not Brown) is, in my honest opinion, a completely manageable undertaking for the type of student that gets into this college. I have taken a huge variety of classes here (with the exception of science labs), in all different departments and with all different professors, and I believe I can say this with certainty. The problem, however, is structuring the rest of your life around those 4 courses, making sure that all those extraneous activities don’t impede too much on the time demands of the underlying reason that we all came here.

Ron -
1.) The meeting time on Wednesday will not allow athletes with practices meeting at that time to attend. I am not sure of the current number of people in that conflict, but I am guessing it is substantial. If for nothing else, I know that I will not be able to attend because of an athletic commitment.

2.) My class (2009) of Atwater students will effectively be “screwed” out of a priority draw (for an Atwater suite) that was promised to us upon arriving as Atwater freshman. Could we maybe integrate the 4/2 housing draw system over a several year period, in which the administration still gives priority to those students it was promised to?

Sincerely,
Kevin O’Rourke ’09

Dear Ron et al;
The discussion regarding the workload at Middlebury is timely and of great concern to me, as I am both an alum and also a parent of students at Midd. I had been giving this issue a good deal of thought already, so I am very interested in your opinion. It does sound to me as though the “homework” at Middlebury is copious, and my sense is that it probably has accelerated in 30 years. However, whether the workload has increased or not may be irrelevant(and hard to measure); what matters most to me is whether the workload is reasonable now.

After spending quite a lot of time listening to numerous students talk about their lives at Middlebury, I admit that I am concerned with the “balance” you all talk about. Although I of course applaud the concept of creating balance and correctly identifying priorities, I question whether many Midd students can truly find a way to nurture more than their academic selves if they are doing all the work that is assigned to them. It seems to me that many students have staggering amounts of homework to do.

I distinctly remember a colorful brochure the year that one of our children applied to Middlebury; this document stressed the importance of balancing academic, athletic and social lives in college (these are not the exact words, but you understand the general idea), and further asserted that this was what Middlebury as an institution was all about, what Midd indeed valued most. It sounded reasonable and healthy to me, for I am a person who strives to model and encourage a well-rounded lifestyle. It also sounded accurate; this was how I perceived Middlebury when I was a student there in the 70s.

What I have heard from some students now, though, is that they have more work than they can finish. They have so much work, in fact, that they can’t complete it thoughtfully, or read it carefully, or digest it all properly. I hear that professors may compete to teach the most difficult class, that students take “study drugs” to stay awake, and that they feel extreme pressure to excel, to complete more than one major, to land a perfect internship, etc.

I hope this isn’t true. I hope that Middlebury is still an institution that values learning over homework, collaboration over competition, and balance overall. Don’t mistake me: Middlebury was and is and should be a first-class institution; it should be rigorous, challenging and stimulating, but it should not (in my humble opinion) be ridiculously stressful and over the top, a pressure-cooker, if you will.

As an additional observation (and I have no doubts about the acceleration of this in 30 years), I am appalled and very concerned about the abuse of alcohol on campus. This is not solely Middlebury’s problem, but it is a problem at Middlebury. Is there a connection between abuse of alcohol and too much pressure at school? I don’t know, but I would ask that question. And I believe Middlebury has a responsibility to address that question.

I wonder what the counselors at Middlebury hear about workload. I know that some of the folks in the counseling department have been at Middlebury for a good amount of time, and could probably offer some perspective on stres and workload. Maybe they could provide some general perceptions. I would be curious to know their overall opinion on this subject.

Also: wasn’t there a long-range plan recently done at Midd? Was there any thought given to looking at student life, at the “campus culture” at Middlebury?

What I ask as a parent is that this dialogue continue. Like you, Ron, I am most interested in hearing from the students, and from as many of them as possible. It’s about them, after all. My views as an alum are less important than the students’ perspectives; it’s their school now.

Here are the questions I would ask, then:
Is the workload consistent? Is it reasonable? How do you arrive at those conclusions? (What is your method for getting feedback?)

Does the faculty discuss “best practice” when it comes to college instruction? Is more work equated with better teaching, or with more learning? If so, does that make sense? And if so, how much is too much?

What is in place at the college so that students (and parents) are heard in this regard? Has the college developed a way to look at this seriously?

I would expect nothing less from Middlebury than a thorough and honest and hard look at how things are going. And I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to share my views and ask my questions. Thank you.

I’m a flip-flopper on the work hard, work harder mentality. When it’s a Saturday night at 10:30 p.m. and I’ve been doing homework since 8 in the morning (not to mention I haven’t seen or spoken to my friends in 3 days), I think, “Grr, Middlebury.” But when that’s all over, I think, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.” My skin feels a little thicker and I feel all the more intelligent.

I agree with previous posters that time management skills among some students are not up to par; the ability to plan one’s time wisely is key to successfully completing a mountain of Middlebury homework, participating in extra-curriculars, and having time to socialize. I’m thankful that I discovered day planners back in high school.

“A vision of students today” is a mediatedcultures.net project out of Kansas State University. Take a look. Very interesting.

Molley Kaiyoorawongs

Molley Kaiyoorawongs’s avatar

President Leibowitz,

Firstly, thank you so much for putting this blog together! I’m studying abroad in Ferrara, Italy right now so this and The Campus are my only reminders of what life used to be like/will be like again when I get back.
A couple of things: For all intents and purposes, the workload is probably the same as 30 years ago. I, however, have ALWAYS thought that it was too much. And last semester, I took 3 courses to find out that I had much more fun. My quality of life went way up as I was able to attend lectures, concerts, screenings (that were usually underattnded, unfortunately) and meet with more friends more often.

I highly highly suggest that every student reduce their courseload for at least a semester, if it’s possible–just to relax and enjoy life. For people that don’t do summer coursework or bring credits with them from high school and want to graduate on time, however, dropping 1 class isn’t possible. It just goes to show that, even at Midd, socio-economic inequalities exist, considering that summer school costs money and students without AP/IB credits usually come from public schools.

Anyway.

In Professor Hofer’s class, we discussed the possibility of taking some courses as pass/fail. I’m a big fan of the idea. For elective courses, why SHOULDN’T this be an option? Not only would it reduce the stress level of the class, I’m sure many students would take classes they never would have considered taking before. I would, for example, sign up for astronomy, which I haven’t done because I hear there is a lot of mathwork involved. Or maybe statistics! Anyway, academic adventurism is a different issue. But we could kill two birds with one stone.

As an RA in Gifford last year, and having the workload of only 3 classes, I often organized get togethers. Unlike lectures, I thought these would be much more highly-attended (isn’t everything when food is offered?) Much to my dismay, they were not. Regardless of whether there is much more work now than way back when, it’s undeniable that students feel crunched and overstressed (the one thing I don’t really miss, being in Italy). And when the vast majority of students feel this way, I don’t think it’s the general student population’s fault as the blog and some comments seem to insinuate(time management and video games were mentioned).
That would be akin to blaming the absurdly low graduation rate of urban public school students to their individual laziness.

President Leibowitz,
In response to some earlier comments and your suggestion that “exercising more self-discipline in the face of all the information technology-driven distractions that we now take for granted in our daily lives” might reduce the stress students feel, I decided to take a week off from the internet except for email (which I don’t often use for social communication anyway) and academic purposes (research, checking homework, etc.). Honestly, I did not find myself getting more done or feeling less stressed. I think many students would agree that compulsive internet use is more or less reflexive – you hit a wall while working on a math problem and check facebook to give your brain a few seconds to cool down. On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of youtube or idle web surfing, so I wasn’t wasting large chunks of time to begin with; my technology use is mostly in the form of multitasking. Was I more productive when not multitasking? Marginally, but not enough to make a noticeable difference in my stress level. Depending on how much time a particular student typically spends on the internet, that could certainly contribute to a feeling of being overwhelmed, but it’s not the whole story. It’s not that I’m not getting by – my work gets done, I get good grades, I sleep nearly enough – but everyone told me college would be the best time of my life, and this year is making liars out of them. Something needs to be reevaluated on a larger scale than my personal life.

Hi Prez,

Rather than post a lengthy response here, we just wanted to let you know that there is an interesting article in the new Debatable issue that addresses the “too much work” concept and includes a not-so-radical, sensible argument in favor of changing final exams to an entirely self-scheduled format, school-wide. Check it out at our web site by surfing go/debatable

The suggestion made in his article would certainly cut down on student stress toward the end of the semesters.

Keep up the compelling blog entires, and we’ll try to do our part as well.

Sites DOT Middlebury: the Middlebury site network.