March 9, 2011

Faculty Senate Opposes School Work Over Breaks

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In an attempt to address mental health concerns on campus, the Faculty Senate voted Wednesday to “strongly discourage” faculty from assigning students homework over academic breaks.

By a vote of 46 to 2, the Senate approved the Educational Policy Committee’s revisions to a similar proposal, rejected on Feb. 8, which used more stringent language and was broader in its reach. The resolution passed Wednesday requires Dean of Faculty William Fry to ask professors to refrain from “assignments that necessitate academic work over scheduled breaks” once a semester.

Chair of the EPC Prof. Bruce Levitt, theatre, helped draft the revised resolution. Although he admitted the resolution is “not really enforceable,” he said it might make professors think twice before overburdening their students with work during their breaks.

“It’s a question of best practice,” Levitt said. He said the resolution was important for “showing tremendous amount of care and concern for student stress.”

The previous resolution was rejected by a vote of 30 to 18 due to its vague language and ambiguous stipulations, according to Levitt. Faculty members had worried that assigning relatively minor assignments over break might violate the proposal.

Levitt defended the Faculty Senate motion as continuing to confront “the whole issue of stress and student workload.”

Still, some Faculty Senate members raised concerns about the resolution’s practicality.

One member of the faculty senate, Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, English, seemed skeptical that the resolution would address underlying mental health issues.

“Didn’t we just see something in student surveys that said that work over break doesn’t cause stress?” Cheyfitz said.

Levitt replied that members of Gannett Health Services would “vehemently disagree,” and that work over break did cause stress.

Cheyfitz countered that students’ views should be taken into account when determining mental health policy.

“So what we’re saying now is that students don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said.

Another member of the faculty senate, Prof. Phillip Nicholson, astronomy, agreed that it was “unreasonable” to assign a problem set a day before break. Still, he wondered if the resolution was meant to discourage him if, “because of scheduling, I had prelim exams scheduled right after break.”

Levitt said professors need to inform students in advance if they would be responsible for work over break, but “if the prelim or exam was planned at the beginning of the schedule, we would probably not object to that.”

Faculty Senate member Prof. Abby Cohn, linguistics, voiced her approval of the resolution, but asked that it be “embedded in the larger discussion” or in the form of an ad-hoc committee. Cohn said that last year’s mental health crisis warranted a more thorough examination of different causes for student stress than the resolution provided.

Other members of the Faculty Senate worried that the approved resolution would increase workloads in weeks preceding breaks.

Faculty Senate member Prof. Jeff Niederdeppe, communication, said that from his conversations with students, he had learned that the week prior to spring and fall break “are the most stressful in the entire semester.” He urged the EPC to address academic stress over these periods.

One member of the Faculty Senate proposed a different way of implementing the resolution. Prof. Richard Penner, hotel administration, requested that enforcement of the resolution be determined by individual colleges. He said it did not make sense to apply the resolution across the University, since, at some of the smaller colleges, “all the students are taking the same curriculum and it’s easier” to minimize workload.

Levitt said he was happy with the resolution’s approval.

“It was very gratifying to see how many people participated in the discussion. I think it’s a good thing for faculty and students,” he said.

Original Author: Max Schindler