An Open Letter to Professors: Give Us a Break

Dear Professors, 

As I started writing this, I kept going back and forth between whether or not I wanted to share it. I thought about being the only one who felt this way, and wondered if this would be better to send to a therapist rather than the Maroon-News. Then I remembered that my Saturday night consisted of picking up dinner with a friend, sitting by Taylor Lake, and crying about the semester; my Sunday night consisted of eating leftovers for dinner with my housemates, sitting in my common room, and crying about the semester; and my Monday night, when cramming in a video lecture at 1.5 playback speed, consisted of responding to someone’s text that said they were sad, and they thought of me because I’ve been sad. Maybe it’s a small sample size, maybe it’s selection bias, or maybe it’s a real enough weight held quietly on the shoulders of too many students at once. Regardless, if I have to, I’m okay standing on this hill by myself. But like being back in Hamilton as the trees paint the Chenango Valley for October, I ask that you join me here for the view.  

My Wednesdays look like this: I miss the Cruiser (on purpose or by accident, depending on the weather) and begin the 20 minute trek from my residence to my 9:20 a.m. class. This is the one chance I get to do it, since my 3 other classes are fully online, and biopsych only asks me to labor up Persson Steps once a week. After class and the sanitization of the desk in front of me, I stomp my way past other masked students and professors in order to make it back to my room in time for my 10:30 (the descent is a little quicker, but no more graceful). At 11:20, I make lunch and watch a pre-recorded lecture — the first of three per week for one class — before heading to work for four hours. I return home, make dinner, watch another lecture, chat with housemates, do dishes, readings, required Moodle posts, more required Moodle posts, another required Moodle post, handle club responsibilities, and call my mom — if I have time (I usually don’t).

All of this is to say: I’ve run out of ways to sit comfortably in my dorm room desk chair. I Zoom into classes, log onto required discussion boards, watch class-length lectures, and try to convince myself it’s worth doing. 

But it’s week 5, and I’m burnt out. 

Since starting the semester I’ve ended more nights holding back tears than not, as far as I can remember. I look back on my days and they all blur together. Even recounting Wednesday’s schedule took effort and a glance back at my to-do list (half incomplete, for the record). Multiple close friends have shared similar experiences. I want to reach out and offer to help, grab lunch, take their mind off of things, but I’ve found it progressively harder to pour from a bucket that’s already not just empty, but in debt. I’m thankful for the seven other women I live with, and the friends on campus offering me comforting glances from the Tom Hanks-sized distance where hugs are forbidden, but I know I’m running out of emotional real-estate each time they ask, “How’s it going?” and I answer with the same hum, the same defeated pessimism: “Poorly, but, you know.”  

None of us – you, professors, my fellow students – would be here right now if we weren’t able to prove beyond a doubt that we could maintain, if not exceed, Colgate’s historically high standards for academic and extracurricular achievement. You wouldn’t have chosen to teach us if you didn’t think we were capable; we wouldn’t have chosen to let you try if we didn’t know we were up for the challenge. However, this is a new moment in Colgate’s history. We can no longer pretend that this is a normal semester, with normal proceedings and normal expectations. Friends comment so casually on the uncertainty of the health of their family members that it sounds like they’re recounting a bad first date. Roommates talk about finishing the semester at home and laugh when they remember due dates follow them across state lines, even if they are sold as more palatable next to home-cooked meals. 

Part of me worries about the sense of entitlement that accompanies a petition of this sort — the other part argues that compassion for a community’s well-being is not controversial. 

The seniors you’ve worked with since they sat in front of you in your FSEM are clinging to their final year with white knuckles, crumpling bucket lists in hands just about as certain as every email opening we’ve gotten since March. First-years are dealing with one of the most significant life transitions possible in the middle of a global pandemic preventing them from experiencing it in the same way every class year before has had the chance to. Sophomores and juniors are just trying to keep their heads above the water. Most of us are not succeeding.

I don’t know what I’m trying to say here. I don’t know what I’m asking of you. We are stressed, and it’s so much more than just telling us to go outside for a walk and tuning into a Zoom meditation and mindfulness session. It’s compounding, and it’s overwhelming in ways we can’t express. It’s not easy to focus when you’re in the same uncomfortable chair facing the same blank wall staring at the same fluorescent screen for synchronous, asynchronous, and off-day hybrid classes, and readings, and additional supplemental lectures, and group work. The things we used to do for fun and for unwinding have been torn from us — we can’t take a deep breath off-campus for a mid-term break, we can’t pile into a friend’s car and go apple picking this weekend, we can’t take a morning to watch our classmates go head-to-head with a rival sports team, we can’t meet with our peers at weekly club events as an excuse to avoid our homework. Not having any free time is the anthem of college life, but the tune of this semester has gone sour. We are told we no longer have an excuse for not dedicating every hour to academics (remember when we all had extra pages of readings because “there’s nothing else to do during quarantine!”?) and we are bleeding because of it.

We know you probably don’t enjoy this either, and we appreciate the ways you’ve worked to adapt the semester so far, but it goes beyond adding more slots for office hours and saying you’re here for us. Show us that. Be kind with your grading. If there’s room to take things off the syllabus, consider it. If students ask for deadline extensions, listen. When assignments are handed in late, be patient. Let us know that you see us as more than bodies responsible for academic outputs. The success of the commitment to community health that we all agreed to uphold is contingent on our dedication to the community’s mental health just as much as its physical health, and for that reason it is failing. Colgate will be here in another year, and we can pick up right where we left off. But it’s okay to treat this semester a little more gently. I worry what will happen if we don’t.