Omar Abdul-Rahim / Sun Staff Photographer

The faculty handbook discourages faculty from assigning work to students over holidays, but they are technically allowed to do that.

November 25, 2018

Despite Being ‘Strongly Discouraged,’ Faculty Can Still Assign Work Over Breaks

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Cornell’s faculty handbook asks professors to refrain from assigning work to students over the break. “Framing assignments in such a way that necessitates academic work over Fall Break, Thanksgiving Break or Spring Break is strongly discouraged,” writes section 6.1.

But unfortunately, if students think they can finally catch up on sleep or bond with family, they might be disappointed as that clause lacks enforcement power, according to Dean of Faculty Charles Van Loan. Faculty in fact have “tremendous autonomy” in how they schedule their assignment due date, he said.

As a result of this autonomy, Van Loan said the best way to convince faculty to abide by the resolution is by telling them that “it’s really important and worthy of their consideration.”

“I have two basic messages to my colleagues with respect to the work-over-break issue. First, announce due dates early so that students can plan. Second, recognize that your syllabus may have been overstocked if you feel pressured into giving sudden work over an upcoming break. Try to be relaxed about dropping a topic or two,” Van Loan told The Sun.

Each semester, Van Loan receives three to four emails from students about assignments they felt violated the resolution. Van Loan then typically emails a reminder to that faculty member about the resolution. When the first version of the work-over-break resolution was proposed in 2011, faculty senators acknowledged intent behind the resolution, but debated the clarity of language in the proposal.

“It says ‘strongly discouraged,’ [so] I think will be inviting a lot of our colleagues to basically disregard this resolution, because I don’t understand it. I’m not required, so what?” said Prof. Wojciech Pawlowski, plant breeding and genetics, in a 2011 faculty senate meeting where this resolution was first discussed.

On the other hand, Prof. Shawkat Toorawa, who taught at Cornell from 2000 and 2016, said in the same meeting that he stopped assigning work over break even before the, recognizing the mental health issues students face.

“[Not assigning work over break] has played havoc with my syllabus, but that’s just life. And it seems to me it is entirely reasonable to expect students to take a break,” Toorawa said. “We should probably take a break. And we should stop calling them breaks if they are not breaks, if they are just long extended reading and working sessions.”

Amidst the debate, Van Loan says that school breaks should not be defined by whether or not someone needs to work. Rather, breaks are a time for a “change of pace” and faculty just need to clearly layout the syllabus in advance and pace the amount of material covered in the class, he said.

Students are also responsible for dividing up their work schedule in the way that suits them best, Van Loan said. Whether they finish their work before break or catch up on assignments during it, he says is up to the students.