Yale can help its students avoid burnout

In my last column, I examined how in college, pressure to achieve, win and build a career increasingly eclipses time to think, wonder and build character, affecting us students at the age when we need that time the most. Hard work is a good thing. The problem comes when stress so wears us down as to deprive us of our reason for working. Here is a plan for how Yale can defy this trend:

1) Bring January Term, or “J Term,” to Yale. J Term is a set of about three weeks between semesters dedicated to intellectual life off the beaten track. At Williams, J Term seminars have included a photographic history of medicine, the poetry of New Jersey (think Walt Whitman and Springsteen) and even a course on art and literary criticism, where the whole point of the course was for each student to explore and share in class a tangent that had occurred to him while he read the assigned essays — the kind of intellectual tangent that, during the semester, one would scarcely have time to investigate.

Yale’s residential college seminars address this need, but, scheduled during the semester, they must compete with its other courses and frenzy of activities. J Term suggests instead that intellectual whimsy, like academic rigor, has its season. Not only a chance to pursue unusual studies, J Term gives us the time to do what we always wish we had time to do: to go to the Yale Center for British Art or walk up Science Hill to the Peabody; to enjoy a Master’s Tea with a diplomat, writer or entrepreneur; to see a Dramat play or a 35mm film at the Whitney.

J Term should not be lax to the point of silliness. Some students may treat it as such — but that risk is well worth taking because so many Yalies would find J Term an intellectual breath of fresh air.

2) Require a community service program that for one semester would replace one course, both in time and in credit. The chance to sit at tables with fellow students and discuss thinkers like Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke is a wonderful privilege. The risk: We may forget that this time to learn a new understanding of the world is indeed a privilege, and its purpose is to make us better people, to inspire us to serve. Community service sends the message that to practice this value, we need not wait — we cannot wait — until we are Burkes and Paines. We can start now, in our community, as we are.

Maybe another requirement is an unlikely candidate to help Yalies turn stress into spirituality. But maybe spending a few hours a week in the “real world,” helping people and getting to know them, would break up academic life’s sheer continuousness and relieve its intensity. Course credit for the program would give it a place in Yalies’ schedules, already passionately overstuffed, while building service into the Yale education’s core.

Yale could let students choose when they take this program, or set one time for all students: say, everyone’s sophomore fall — a remedy for the “sophomore slump.” Students might meet in groups weekly to discuss projects and would be assessed on a Credit/D/Fail basis.

Yale could work with New Haven schools, retirement homes, libraries, and police and fire departments to offer programs that would create a whole new set of relationships between Yalies and New Haven. Those who wished could continue serving after their required semester, creating a “ripple effect” of Yalies who otherwise might never have tried community service but who stay with it for years.

3) Allow the Credit/D/Fail option for courses counted toward distributional requirements. One of college’s blessings is that trying something new is easy, in a way that after college, it never is again. Distributional requirements oblige us to take advantage of this chance. Credit/D gives us the margin for error to do so without jeopardizing the GPA that potential employers see. These tools should work together; the courses we take just for distributional requirements are often the ones in which Credit/D would help the most. It’s a pity that under Yale’s new requirements, one cannot take a course Credit/D if one intends to satisfy distributional requirements with it.

4) End the requirement that students take five classes in at least four terms. The option should remain; some students revel in it. But others, while delighting in academics, struggle to find time for four Yale courses, let alone a fifth. Rather than skim five classes, these students would prefer to labor genuinely at four — while taking in Yale’s marvelous opportunities outside the classroom.

Yale cannot change the strenuous nature of adulthood. To think it could would be naive; to think it should would also be mistaken, for hard work, too, gives life meaning, if we are lucky. What Yale can be — what in many ways it already is, and I love that it is — is a pause before life’s journey. Then, when we are grown-ups, if real-world workloads should weaken our grip on who we are and what we stand for, we will seek to “hold fast to that which is true,” as St. Paul wrote, and we will remember the values we discovered in our “bright college years.”

Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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