Arrington: Let Us Put Us First

Dartmouth as an institution should create norms that allow students to better prioritize their physical, mental and emotional health.

by Katherine Arrington | 10/12/21 3:00am

Professors, as well as the administration, love to tell us to put our health first. They tell us to sleep and to eat and to take care of our mental health — and to put all those things before our schoolwork. And yet, the incentive to sacrifice our physical, mental and emotional health on the altar of academia remains. If we want a culture of healthier and happier students, and people in general, then we need new norms. Extensions, understanding and academic flexibility must all become a deeper part of Dartmouth’s culture.

I am a second-year college student, and I have pulled more than my fair share of all-nighters, skipped many a meal, and kept working past the point of my own mental wellness. I am far from abnormal in this. Rather, from my conversations with classmates, I have come to realize that my work habits at college are representative of far too many Dartmouth students.

It’s not that I don’t want to sleep eight hours a night, eat three meals a day and work during reasonable hours only. But the fact of the matter is, if I did all those things, I would likely face serious academic repercussions. After all, professors don’t tend to take “I was busy getting eight hours of sleep” as an excuse for not turning in a paper on time.

It is not healthy for Dartmouth to continue to have these expectations of its students, many of whom are not exactly strangers to mental health struggles, especially in the past year. It should go without saying that humans require sleep and food to stay healthy — and yet, the Dartmouth pressure cooker leaves students not getting nearly enough of it.

But although current campus norms surrounding the relationship between productivity and physical and mental health are far from ideal, they are only norms, and norms can change. As a community, we can create a culture that promotes a healthy balance between academics and personal care.

As a start, Dartmouth as an institution could reframe extensions as more than just resources for extenuating circumstances, but options for students who are stressed, overwhelmed and would simply benefit from an extra day or two. Maintaining the flexibility that the pandemic required would be an excellent way to give students more options for completing their work, instead of forcing them to push themselves past their limits. 

Dartmouth professors could also be more cognizant of the amount of work that they are expecting students to complete. Yes, the primary reason that we are here is to learn. However, the amount that we study and the amount that we learn do not necessarily have a causal relationship. Some of the best courses that I have taken at Dartmouth have only required an hour or two of work before each class, if that; some of the worst have assigned upwards of five or six per class. Recognizing that students have very little time and are incredibly overworked — and formatting syllabi in accordance with that — would be a wonderful way for Dartmouth as a whole to give students more opportunity for rest and self-care.

Finally, adopting a culture of understanding rather than judgment could go a long way in improving the quality of students’ lives. I mentioned earlier that “I was busy getting eight hours of sleep” is not a great excuse for not completing an assignment. However, what if it was? Would it be so bad if occasionally a student just grabbed a meal or got a good night’s sleep instead of overworking themselves, and finished the assignment with another day or two? I certainly do not think so. We already have an honor code for exams, trusting that students will not abuse the rules regarding academic expectations; the code could extend to late work as well, trusting that students are not abusing flexibility but rather choosing much-needed rest over pushing themselves past their breaking point.

I am sure that many people believe deadlines are absolutely necessary for a rigorous academic environment. However, I reject that a more flexible norm around extensions would necessarily undermine the academic experience at Dartmouth. Extensions do not mean that students will only procrastinate more; after all, Dartmouth students have all worked hard to be at this school, and most would prefer not to have overdue assignments hanging over their heads. Rather, a culture of flexibility can provide students a chance to get more rest and recuperation, with the only drawback being that students occasionally get their work done a few days later than would be ideal.

I will admit that it’s easy to slip into a mindset where we value the products of our work more than the quality of our lives — but the fact that Dartmouth as an institution seems to have adopted this mindset is both dangerous and inexcusable. As students, putting our physical health and mental well-being first often results in punishment, while we’re rewarded for pushing ourselves past reasonable limits. Dartmouth as a community must adopt a culture of flexibility and understanding, implementing new norms that allow students to complete academic work without burning themselves out.

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