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Community Council Update

By Nick Garber

On Nov. 9, Community Council reviewed its large list of potential solutions to student stress, discussing whether additional topics should be added.

Several students agreed that the advising system could be significantly improved. An opportunity to engage with their advisors on subjects that are not purely academic, they said, would be highly valued.
In addition, Public Safety Telecom Manager and Tech Support Specialist Solon Coburn, citing a recent New York Times article, mentioned the possibility of framing stress not simply as a negative emotion, but as a tool which can be utilized to one’s advantage.

On Nov. 16, the Council dedicated its meeting to the subject of faculty stress, with several professors sharing their thoughts on the issue.

Dean of the College Katy Smith Abbott (who has taught in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture) concurred with another professor that certain measures to combat student stress may only increase the stress felt by faculty. Self-scheduled exams, she said, were one example.

“There is a very high percentage of cheating that goes on with self-scheduled exams,” she said. “So if you’re managing the anxiety about whether your students are going to be dishonest in taking it, or you’re spending the time following up on a dishonesty case, that’s a lot of time and an immense amount of stress for a faculty member.”

Associate Professor of Political Science Bert Johnson felt similarly. “When I first got here, I did a lot of self-scheduled exams, because I thought it was easier for students,” he said. “But after several cycles of honor code review committee reports, I could not in good conscience continue because of the incidence of cheating.”

“From a faculty perspective, when you encounter an instance of cheating or plagiarism… there’s nothing in my teaching career that has made me feel worse than that,” Johnson said.

Faculty also cited students’ frequent desire to see course syllabi during the summer before registration takes place. “Very often, a faculty member is planning on using the summer or late summer weeks to pull [a syllabus] together,” said Smith Abbott.

Sarah Laursen, Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture, agreed on several points, adding that “it’s more difficult for new faculty to pull together that syllabus. It takes time to gauge what level the students are at, and you need a little flexibility in your syllabus if you end up changing some things.”

Laursen listed several additional sources of stress for many faculty, including advising, developing and preparing new courses, and maintaining a “rigorous schedule” of publication.

Johnson noted that the issue of publication was a common one, particularly when balanced with a professor’s responsibility to teach. “It used to be that when you were at a liberal arts college like this, it was all about teaching. Increasingly, at liberal arts colleges, you are expected to have a big record of publications, in addition to being the best possible teacher and being engaged in the community.”

This accumulation of “stuff,” Johnson felt, is what prevents the College community from “interacting with one another in low-stakes, casual ways.”

Several students shared that this high level of faculty stress often deters them from “bothering” professors who they feel might be busy – a revelation which struck faculty as particularly disappointing.
“It breaks my heart when students say, ‘I know how busy you are!’” Smith Abbott said.

“The best part of my day is going into the classroom,” agreed Johnson. “If students are worried about approaching faculty because they’re worried about adding stress load to the faculty, that’s a real problem.”

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