Give me a break

Sitting down on some very wet bleachers last Saturday to watch the big game after a very long academic week made me realize something: We probably do deserve a few extra As and Bs. Issue is sometimes raised about “grade creep” – that subtle yet consistent push of letter grades toward the upper limit of their distribution. Members of the faculty and administration may be concerned that these grades are deviating too far from what a reasonable distribution should be. Yet instead of creeping grades, the College would do better to focus on the very genuine increase in the amount of work students are doing on a weekly basis.

My workload last week began the Friday before with an in-class exam that contained a take-home component to be done over the weekend. Then there was a paper due Tuesday, a test Wednesday and Thursday, a problem set also due Thursday and another one due the following day as well. By the time Homecoming rolled around I could barely tell what day it was, let alone explain the Keynesian view of short-run economic equilibrium. Though my week was crazy and very difficult, it was really nothing by comparison to some of my classmates’ schedules. It wasn’t just bad cases of swine flu that were making us all look haggard and strung out – it was the four hours of sleep over the last 48 hours. If anything, I think it could be said that swine flu really came to hit us while we were already down.

The average Williams student probably has three hours daily in which to finish seven hours worth of work. Often, the longer you are here, the more groups you become involved in and the more prominent becomes your role within them. As this is going on, you also begin to get a more and more demanding workload from upper-level classes. Something has got to give. A typical work week can be stressful but not impossible, yet some weeks you are met with the perfect storm of assigned readings, problem sets and papers. Reaching Friday can feel like a distant dream. Those are the weeks that make the curve after the exam justifiable and the large number of “decent” grades deserved.

In many ways this dedicated approach to schoolwork defines us as students here at Williams, but that does not mean we cannot make things a bit easier. Adding in a second reading period might be a good place to start. Most professors have two exams or papers due over the course of the semester in addition to their final exam, paper or project. I would be interested in knowing why the first of those exams gets a reading period while the second does not, especially if the second of the two is often more difficult and more cumulative than the first. If a second reading period would be too hard to schedule in, then perhaps just offering up suggested exam weeks to different departments or professors could help spread things out. I don’t expect to do away with tests altogether, but there are steps that could be taken that would make the average student’s exam schedule less dense. This would allow students to be better prepared for their exams. There are few feelings related to academics worse than knowing you could have done better on an exam, but didn’t because you had another one the same day that was worth too many points more.

This often oppressive workload does not depend on the actions of any particularly cruel professors, and I would guess that most don’t even know or suspect that what they are assigning is, at times, unreasonable. This is in part because it wouldn’t be, if we only had one or two classes per semester. We of course don’t – most of us have four classes, and so if every one of our four professors assigns just a bit too much work per week, then the effect is multiplied through and results in an overworked student facing a few hundred pages of reading and two problem sets to complete before their next classes. Although it may prove difficult to coordinate exam schedules and work-intensive weeks across the entire school, it is an avenue worth looking into. If even a few of the most hectic exam schedules can be evened out, as they are during finals, we would all be the better for it.

We have entered the season of “I can’t wait for Winter Study,” a product of our demanding schedules and dwindling time to get everything done. As a group we will need Winter Study to relax and catch up on all the things we let slip when we get too busy with problem sets, tests and papers. High GPAs are often a reflection of that dedication and work. These are not signs of our apathy or laziness. Often we just do not have adequate hours in the day. Helping to minimize these “perfect storms” of academic work can help both professors and students get the most out of the classes they are teaching and taking.

Sam Jonynas ’12 is from Chester, Vt. He lives in Carter.

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