This year, Cornell University added a new vacation period to its academic calendar: “February Break.” This additional break was intended to help students better manage their stress and work-life balance at Cornell University. By dividing the notoriously long Spring semester into thirds, the calendar’s new structure offers both teachers and students more opportunities to relax from their heavy workloads at consistent time intervals. The break was received with much appreciation; many students and teachers left during the break to visit their families and relax at home during this extended weekend.
However, not everyone was completely happy with the change. Some students expressed concern over how the new break would alter other aspects of the academic calendar. Specifically, they were concerned by the newly-delayed Spring Break–which would no longer overlap with the Spring Break periods of some other large colleges from the area–and by the shortening of the final study period at the end of the Spring semester. Teachers have likewise expressed concern over how the break would interfere with the class schedules and syllabuses. The number of classes they will have before major exam periods and the order in which the present their material in lecture must be changed in order to accommodate the new break. All these accommodations makes Fall Break less appealing to some teachers and students, particularly to those who did not need the additional break beforehand to manage their workloads. However, despite these complaints, most teachers and students have found the break incredibly useful and appreciate the new chance to relax.
The key word there being “chance.”
A lot of the most publicized complaints regarding the new break have focused on its implementation–namely, its effects on later events in the academic calendar. However, I’ve found that the larger problem regarding this break is its inefficiency to do what it was intended to accomplish: to help students and teachers relax. I loved the idea of an additional vacation period during Spring semester, and I viewed the new division of the Spring semester into thirds as a good strategic change. However, now that I am in the middle of February Break, I’m less enamored with the idea. I don’t feel more relaxed. I do appreciate spending an extra weekend with my little sister, but I’m still just as anxious about work and as incredibly busy at home as I was back in Ithaca. So, with all the talk about how February Break would help students relax, why does this vacation not feel like a vacation?
In my case, I can’t enjoy February Break in the way Cornell’s administrators intended because I was assigned homework and exams over the break. February Break ends on Wednesday, February 19th. On that day, I have an assignment due for one of my PMA courses that is the equivalent to a preliminary exam (if you consider the percentage of my grade it constitutes). Given how the course’s syllabus was structured, I couldn’t have completed the project in advance; I need to wait until the last lecture before the break to receive feedback from the teacher on my project draft before I could move forward with its final reiteration. Add onto that deadline reading and project assignments from other classes that are due Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of that week, and you have an incredibly stressful amount of work. I can’t complete it all on the morning I return from February Break, and I can’t afford to not complete the work if I want to receive good grades in my classes. As result, instead of relaxing at home or spending time with my sister, I’m rushing around trying to glue together pieces of foam core in a small model and to read chapters in several dense textbooks before I need to catch my bus back to Ithaca. In my head are a flurry of questions:
Did I bring everything home that I need to finish all my homework?
Is this model sturdy enough to survive the bus trip back to Ithaca?
What homework can I do today or tomorrow, instead of on the day I get back to Cornell?
What did my teacher want me to do for this assignment?
Did I cover everything that could possibly be on the quiz?
Maybe I can ask my friend what they did for this question…will they answer the phone if I call them?
Notice how none of those things are relaxing thoughts, nor thoughts centered around things I enjoy doing or on my family. It doesn’t even cover the various concerns I have around upcoming internship deadlines, extracurricular responsibilities, or financial aid deadlines. Yet, Cornell administrators still believe that February Break is somehow helping me to relax from my classes.
It doesn’t matter how much time away from lectures you give me. The stress I experience at Cornell doesn’t come from attending classes; it comes from the various assignments, quizzes, and other measurements of performance that I need to complete outside of classes. Additional breaks help me escape lectures, but it doesn’t help me escape the assignments. For this reason, although I appreciate the idea of February Break, it will never solve the long-term problems I and many other students face regarding work-life imbalance at Cornell. To tackle those problems, Cornell administrators need to couple these new vacation periods with effective restrictions on the assignment of work and exams by teachers during and immediately after vacations.
I’ve heard that Cornell University does, in fact, discourage professors from assigning work during the breaks or making work due on the day immediately following breaks. However, Cornell University does not effectively discourage professors from these behaviors. Cornell administrators need to publicly announce their commitment to limiting these behaviors if they ever want to change the stress culture we have developed here on campus. Administrators need to set consequences for professors who design their syllabuses in such a way that forces students to work over breaks (regardless of their time management abilities or aptitude in the field of study in question). Furthermore, students need to be informed of the various actions they could take against teachers when they find themselves in such situations. Many students I know do not understand the function of the university’s ombudsman nor can identify an administrator or professor they could talk to about such problems. With more knowledge about campus policies and support for students, students would have greater power to protect the opportunities for work-life balance academic breaks offer them against unfair demands to work.
To be clear, I don’t advocate that we “dumb down” our curriculum or compromise on the quality of our university’s courses as a solution to these problems. I only suggest that if we really want academic breaks to serve as vacations for students from the academic stresses they regularly face, then we need to make sure that they aren’t forced to do academic work over those breaks. With some simple changes in how professors structure our course syllabuses, in how administrators promote academic breaks, and how students are educated about the resources they have here on campus to protect their vacation time, we could make these breaks much more effective at reducing stress on campus.
For incoming students, I recommend that either you help bring to the community’s attention your desire to have the changes occur or schedule your lives according to the true atmosphere that currently exists here regarding breaks. As of now, students cannot expect academic breaks to truly be “relaxing.” They can–and most likely will–be comparatively less stressful than a week filled with lectures. However, if you are someone like me who wants to visit your family and leave your work behind you during the breaks, then you will need to work hard from the beginning of the semester onwards to get ahead of the syllabus. Do your work in advance as much as you can and cram on your assignment well before you leave for the bus home. Even then, you may still find yourself bending over backwards to study for exams or finish projects during the break, at the expense of quality time for yourself or with loved ones.
Because, even when you try to get ahead of the syllabus, sometimes you can’t complete the assignment until your professors gives you a key piece of information…and you won’t get that information until right before the break begins. Or, your professor will add a new assignment at the last minute and schedule it for (that’s right, you guessed it) right after the break ends. That lack of agency over when you can complete your work is what sabotages the good intentions of academic breaks. So keep it in mind, and find a way to manage it without going insane.
Or, find a way to get your professors or administrators to take notice of your plight. Either way, you have nothing left to lose but your stress.