February 13, 2011

The Root of the Problem

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The Faculty Senate recently debated a proposal recommending that professors refrain from assigning homework over academic breaks in order to foster an environment that “encourages mental health.” The proposal was ultimately tabled due to disputes over its language.

While it is important that University faculty recognize the impact excess work can have on mental health — a sensitivity that professors campus-wide have not always shared — this proposal misses the mark, failing to truly address the root of the problem.

The big question is: What exactly does this resolution solve if all professors were to follow its recommendations? It is true that the proposal offers students time off from their studies over vacation, but that work would only be rescheduled to either a week before or after the break. Almost ironically, this could create an even greater excess of work for students.

Were this resolution to pass, professors would not drastically alter their syllabuses and certainly would not remove tests or assignments from their curriculums. Instead, the same amount of work would need to be completed in less time. Cornell is a rigorous academic institution — a major draw for many applicants and a source of pride for its students. No resolution can, or should, ever alter that.

The proposal should not recommend that faculty tailor their syllabuses; it should  instead address a more fundamental problem –– student class scheduling. This starts with reemphasizing the importance of the student-faculty relationship.

Cornell is a big school and students often do not receive the support they need when choosing courses. Their advisers should be the first people they turn to, but oftentimes that option does not seem accessible. Sitting down with a faculty member at the beginning of a semester to go over upcoming course loads can go a long way towards alleviating stress levels later on.

As the semester progresses, it is ultimately the students’ obligation to continue to manage his or her work and ensure that he or she does not fall behind in any classes, but their advisers must help. Faculty should make it a priority to check in with their advisees. Ensuring that students do not feel overwhelmed by their work does far more to promote mental health in academics than recommending that professors no longer assign work over breaks.

The Faculty Senate should be commended for addressing mental health concerns related to academics. However, wording a resolution that in name only seeks to promote mental health is not the same as going after what appears to be the source of the stress. The Faculty Senate needs to consider what causes these problems before they can fix them.