October 16, 2019

EDITORIAL: Put the ‘Break’ Back in Breaks

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A four-day mid-semester pause from classes would seem to offer ample time for students to recharge and focus on well-being and sleep. Nor is this an accident, as The Faculty Handbook Project makes clear: “Short breaks from academic requirements are intentionally included in the academic calendar to provide rest, respite and a break from schoolwork.” Cornell Health further emphasizes the need for rest, especially sleep, with an entire page dedicated to sleep-related health. It recommends students take 7-9 hours every night to get sleep — which, in its words, “is a necessity, not a luxury.”

But is that consistent with the messages our instructors are sending us? Take, for example, the all-too-common practice of professors assigning work during breaktime. When students get work over break, the obvious implication is that the assigned work should trump any need for a proper break. When that message is coming from faculty across campus, the risk is that it can incubate a culture where students feel their need for a break is secondary or even illegitimate.

There is no University document that prohibits assigning work over break. But there should be. Which isn’t to say work over break is assigned with malice, or to diminish the importance of learning. Professors simply want to maximize learning opportunities, which is understandable. But clear lines need to be drawn between school and break. When those don’t exist, it comes at the cost of student well-being.

Section 6.1 of The Faculty Handbook Project acknowledges that “student workloads have become an increasing cause of concern in relation to student mental health and stress.” But for all the faculty and University concern, the handbook merely suggests that “framing assignments in such a way that necessitates academic work” over break is “strongly discouraged.”

These are conflicting ideas — saying that students have breaks for the sake of getting rest, but that instructors need not give them that rest.

Interfering with rest that betters mental health and academic culture, is just “strongly discouraged.” And faculty simply should not “frame” work over break as work over break. That is an inadequate answer to a concern over mental health and student workloads that the University itself already acknowledges.

All this feeds into a University-wide attitude that rest is not important. It devalues taking time for students’ mental health and well-being. It says that a syllabus is more important than sleep. If that’s the culture that Cornell wants to cultivate, then we should continue to “strongly discourage” behaviors that are counterproductive to “intentional breaks.”

But if we want a healthier culture — acknowledging the reality of students overburdened by work or those who just need some dedicated, set-aside time to rest — then Cornell policy should reflect that aspiration. Would it turn the University upside down if the three days following the “intentionally scheduled breaks,” were deadline- and exam-free?

The above editorial reflects the opinions of The Cornell Daily Sun. Editorials are penned collaboratively between the Editor-in-Chief, Associate Editor and Opinion Editor, in consultation with additional Sun editors and staffers. The Sun’s editorials are independent of its news coverage and op-eds.