Section: Opinion

Workload reduction for all during pandemic is a mistake

A recent opinions article in the April 23 issue of the Collegian, titled “Something’s got to give: Workload must be decreased with students struggling at home,” advocates for the reduction of course workloads in light of our new, strange and difficult circumstances. The article’s diagnosis—that our current situation is irregular and difficult and calls for compassion and kindness—is dead-on. The idea that the primary solution ought to be an across-the-board reduction of work hinges on a significant misunderstanding of the purpose of a college education, liberal arts or otherwise.

I disagree with the attitude that the new challenges posed by our current situation are “not what learning … should be about.” Instead, I believe that “How well you can manage to focus and complete assignments despite the many unique obstacles you have to overcome,” is precisely what learning should be about. A proper education is one which not only challenges one’s mind but also one’s general abilities to meet life’s challenges. Sometimes this means testing our abilities to self-motivate, focus and achieve admirable success despite unexpected difficulties.

It bears recognition that there are certain students who, due to new commitments like work or family assistance, simply lack the time needed to do their schoolwork, no matter how hard they may try. Given a lack of helpful data on this subject, College policy ought to err on the side of assuming students have a capability to complete their work, even if this incurs a greater challenge than usual. Cases in which this is untrue are better solved on an ad-hoc basis. To communicate with professors in this way might be uncomfortable, but self-advocacy is certainly another important facet of our education. Individual circumstances should not guide policy that dictates a change of course for all students, potentially robbing many of a meaningful developmental opportunity.

I have recently participated in multiple video calls and email chains with professors to discuss how the second half of this semester has tested my resolve, personal discipline and motivation more than any other and has led me into a great deal of self-doubt and frustration. And so what? If I don’t perform, I don’t perform. That is what it is. It isn’t that performance doesn’t matter but that I’d rather fail to meet original expectations than succeed according to lowered ones. As one professor wrote to me, sometimes we need to tell ourselves, “[The work] doesn’t have to be great; it has to be done.”

I think any way one cuts it, a work-reduction attitude falls to a concern for grades or a fear of failure. One fears that if the work isn’t reduced, one runs a greater risk than usual of coming up short. This fear, however, should never be allowed to guide the structure of an education. To accommodate this fear betrays the opportunity to learn and to grow. As the possibility of failure increases, so too does the potential gain.

As I wrote in a letter in the New York Times, “Are Straight A’s the Road to Success?”, what many students get wrong is “an inability to cope with coming up short.” I believe “The real test of a student’s character is how one deals with falling short of what one asks of one’s self…The test is whether, in striving for A’s, one can receive a B and keep chugging in pursuit of a challenging goal.” To rob students of that, to take away that challenge because someone purports to know what students can or cannot now handle without them saying so, is to steal away the opportunity to learn and to grow.

Just the other day I was on the phone with a good friend at the University of Southern California who just made it into what is essentially their honors game design program. We got to talking about Kenyon honors in political science and the process of professorial criticism involved. I told him about a potentially comparable experience in my first-year course with Professor Lisa Leibowitz, who had a practice of meeting in-person with students to give the most extensive and cutting writing criticisms I have ever experienced. I said that I learned more about writing in that class than in any other. My friend responded by saying, “You know, I wish people over here would really challenge you like that. I feel like sometimes I hear you talk about Kenyon, and it sounds like what college is supposed to be like.”

For some of us, the compassion and kindness for which our current time calls may well mean a reduction in work. That cannot be treated as anything but an ad-hoc solution, however. Kenyon’s ability to challenge and allow students to fail is its greatest virtue; to abandon it now would only further damage an already suffering semester.

I don’t yet know for myself, but this may well be the hardest semester many of us face at Kenyon. It may also be the one in which we learn the most.

Philip Brain ’21 is a political science major from Kansas City, Mo. You can contact him at brain1@kenyon.edu.

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