March 15, 2011

Give Me a Break

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There’s an old joke about Cornell: One day, A.D. White’s talking to Ezra Cornell about his wonderful vision for a new university. He talks about how anyone can study anything at the highest levels of education. Ezra responds, “Wow A.D., that sounds awesome, but what will we do when too many people want to go there?” A.D. says, “Wait till you see where I’m gonna put it.” As spring break approaches, it’s difficult not to grow weary when it’s still 30 degrees outside and already mid-March. Presumably, we knew what we were getting into, but Ithaca is cold. What’s more, the week off for spring break right in the middle of the semester comprises the only days off of class from mid-January to May. The academic calendar is unbalanced and flawed.

This seems to be the general trend across the Ivies, but it can’t be the only way to plan a semester. The fall semester has fall break and Thanksgiving break — while each is shorter than Spring break, their distribution divides the semester in a more bearable and logical way. This is especially necessary in the Spring semester, most of which takes place in the brutal dead of winter.

It seems a little silly to complain that students need a break because of the weather, but the combination of extreme weather and extreme coursework is tangibly detrimental. Psychological effects of lessened sunlight exposure are generally recognized; Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) happens whether we acknowledge it or not. The combination of being physically uncomfortable and often stressed makes a mid-winter break a reasonable request. The opportunity to stop for a minute and not have to run on such a set schedule — the simple break of routine — would give students something to look forward to earlier in the semester and a chance to recuperate, even if only for a few days.

The distribution of school breaks has academic significance as well.  Spring semester is one marathon, a break and then another marathon until finals. Further, the break’s position dead center in the semester means that most classes require some form of substantial evaluation (papers, midterms, etc.) right before or after the week off. Spring break either condenses due dates that would otherwise be distributed over a few weeks or essentially becomes a study period.

The solution to this particular problem cannot be simply to require courses to refrain from assigning work over break. Assigned reading is by nature continuous, and the course can’t simply stop while break happens. The way break is currently scheduled creates extremes. It also disrupts the continuity of course material.

Courses continue over the semester; they are not made up of distinct halves. Yet, such a singular and drastic stop mid-semester induces this mentality. While the inclination is for spring to indicate a pause or end in courses, the reality is that course material is consecutive, and when spring break ends we take up where we left off.

If the University created two slightly shorter breaks (perhaps one at the end of February and one at the end of March), the endless drear of winter might feel less oppressive and the ongoing schoolwork less infinite — courses would have a more consistent and even pace. Even if the number of days off remained the same, their distribution over the semester would make them feel more substantial without interrupting the design of the semester and class syllabi. During the spring semester, we finally get a break when we really need it, and we get a whole week. But perhaps if we had two more even breaks we would be able to maintain momentum without it. Ultimately, the reorganization of the academic calendar could potentially improve the student psyche.

Ruby Perlmutter is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be contacted at rperlmutter@cornellsun.com. Having Said That appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter