Why We Must Work Less in School
The sociology professor was on Zoom presenting research about how students felt taking classes during COVID. The results of the research: Students were depressed, anxious, and totally overwhelmed by their workloads.
One professor raised his tiny Zoom hand. “I don’t get it,” he said. “I always assign a ton of work. I’m not assigning more work than I did before the pandemic.”
This professor was speaking the values of the entire institution of academia. Of course his class was “rigorous.” His expectations of his students were high. He loaded students up on work, and they better be ready for it. This was college, after all.
I had spoken the same words as this professor, many times over, but not lately. Lately I had dropped essay assignments in my classes. I had cut down my reading lists, assigning only a fraction of what I had read in a college class back in 1992. I had done all of the things that the institution of academia would despise. Probably I had “lowered standards,” too, because I could not stomach failing my entire class. The reality was that with every year, my students had less experience reading before they came to my class. They were more economically disadvantaged, more prone to anxiety. They were addicted to their phones, truly, medically, addicted. Their brains struggled to focus. They had competing demands on their time: children, siblings, sick parents, jobs that supported their families.
It was a far cry from the experience I had in college as a person with an embarrassment of privileges. At UCSD in the 90s, I took only three classes a semester and did not work. In my literature classes, we read a full-length novel every week and wrote essays frequently. But I could spend an entire Saturday stretched out on a towel on the grass reading. My professors could assign a lot of work because often TAs were the ones reading it and giving the grade. Although I worked hard in college and was exposed to a lot of books, I can’t say I learned that much. We were always rushing on to the next thing, and there was barely any time for me to process any of it.
And this is the biggest reason I have reduced my students’ workloads. What point is there in working hard if our brains are so overwhelmed that we cannot process what we are “learning”? It used to be that as a teacher in my own classes, I felt enormously stressed and always behind. I was always rushing, always trying to do more, and always feeling like I was failing, or flailing.
Perhaps it was COVID lockdown that slowed me down enough to wonder, “What is it all for?” I realized that so much of the work that I assigned was there to make my course appear “serious,” and even as a way of competing with other teachers for my students’ attention. I knew from what my students told me that other professors were heaping on the work, and I feared that if I didn’t do so as well, my students would relegate my class to lowest priority. I worried, too, that other teachers would think my class was a joke. So many times at meetings I heard other faculty members brag about how much reading they assigned and complain about how students couldn’t seem to manage it. The assumption was that students were getting weaker and lazier — probably in part because of teachers like me, who wouldn’t hold up the “standards.”
When I really think about it, my students are not worse than the ones twenty years ago. But they are different because the world is different. Students in the San Francisco Bay Area are living in one of the most expensive and competitive areas in the world, where working is not an option but a necessity. They are anxious about their very survival and anxious about the damaged world we are giving them. Only the most privileged of them are able to lounge in the sun reading a book in a day.
My students have been told that college is the only route to financial security, and then college presented them with a million hoops to jump through, which it calls “hard work.” Because how could anyone argue with hard work? There’s a belief in the Western world, or maybe the whole world, that productivity is what makes us valuable. We must always be “contributing to society.” This idea is so entrenched that we can’t even see another way. When I started doing a daily art practice during COVID, I kept having to remind myself that I wasn’t doing it for praise, or likes on Instagram, or to sell or show my work. It felt so strange to do something just for the enjoyment of doing it.
As a teacher during COVID, I felt that the best I could do was be a force for healing: for myself, my husband and dogs, and my students. I came to this after a semester of terrible stress that led to a headache lasting two full weeks. After that headache, I thought, I could ease off a little, and emphasize depth over breadth. I could meet my students where they started, instead of wishing they could be further along. I could stop using “hard work” as a weapon or a filtering agent. Most of all, I could respect my own time and my students’ time by setting a policy of no busywork. I could make my classes lean but still emphasize weekly discipline by assigning and responding to my students’ reading reflection logs. So that’s what I did. I’ve kept it secret until now because I was scared. I was scared of not being taken seriously, of being seen as negligent. But now I realize that it’s this fear that keeps all of us trapped in a cycle of endless, often meaningless work.
College in a new era means that college has to change. It doesn’t mean that we abandon challenge, but perhaps it means that we think carefully about how to craft educational challenges that our students can meet without ruining their mental and physical health. Some might say that an arduous college experience prepares students for the “real world,” and in some cases that might be true. But I might argue that we should all work less, and find more significance in the work that we are doing. In a world with so many competing demands on our time and attention, perhaps this approach would force us to think about what work really matters and what we can let go of.
To the professor who said he assigns “a ton of work,” I might ask why. Really, why? Do our students need to know everything? Could we prioritize what seems most important? Could we even bring some serenity to the learning experience? Currently we seem to have the view that hard work and serenity are polar opposites, but a meditation practice will show the flaw in this thinking. I found that as I assigned less work, my students did better on their reading and writing. They wrote better papers that showed more preparation, and this in part was because we worked through our essays step by step, instead of rushing to complete them. All of us could think more clearly because we were not overloaded. What would it look like to redefine success in education as calmness? As consistency, or carefulness? Maybe the insane reading list of the past is an item of nostalgia, a different time, a different world, different students. What will the new one look like?