You're doing enough: no need to overload

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During a January strategic planning town hall, Dean of Student Affairs Gina Casalegno asked a packed room, "How can we maintain our excellence in all domains while ensuring a commitment to wellness for all campus members?”

Of course, this question has been discussed many times in many forms since I arrived on Carnegie Mellon's campus, but until that town hall, I had never seriously considered any proposed solutions to this problem.

Why? Simply because many solutions to the question of balancing wellness and work do not seem feasible. Asking students to better manage their time or to take more free time for themselves places a large onus on students.

As hardworking individuals who were accepted by Carnegie Mellon because of our undeniable work ethic, it seems almost unfeasible to ask students to go against their instinct and chance not performing well — whether it be on a project or test — in exchange for some downtime or consistently full nights of sleep.

Hence why town hall attendee Jim Lawrence's suggestion that Carnegie Mellon nix the option to overload on courses has stuck with me for almost a month after the town hall.

During the meeting, Lawrence stated that at Harvard University, most students take four classes, or 16 credits. There is no standard option for students to overload. In fact, when one student took six classes in 2011, the [ITAL]Harvard Crimson[ITAL] found it so unusual that they wrote an entire story on his experience that semester. Quite a different culture from the culture on our campus, huh?

If students at Harvard find their classes aren't challenging enough during the semester, the Ivy League students are encouraged to do something else with their time. While students can still easily overwork themselves with extracurricular activities, it is notable that they cannot overwork themselves with additional classes. As Carnegie Mellon looks to define its path over the next few years, administrators and the wider campus community should seriously consider Lawrence's suggestion to do away with overloading.

While the suggestion will in no way cause all students to immediately more evenly distribute downtime and work time, the solution could work toward fixing numerous problems. For one, students would be forced to find new ways to fill their time that they had not previously explored.

The lack of an option to fill time with more units could lead to students doing something that is arguably more enjoyable than mandatory coursework, unless they're among those rare people who truly enjoy extra assignments throughout the week over a dance class, painting session, or time with friends. While many students already do these things even with a full course load, imagine how many more of these activities they could do, or how much sleep and exercise they could balance with coursework and extracurricular activities as well.

If students couldn't overload, it could fight the notion that students need to constantly push themselves to work more and graduate as quickly as possible. If there is no suggestion online that a student merely agree upon the units they're overloading on with their advisers, students may be less tempted to do more work. When students are given the option to overload, it enforces the notion that we always need to do more. The decision to cut overloading could signal to students that their energy spent toward extra classes could be better spent on other facets of their wellness.

Of course, the idea to cut out overloading was contested at the town hall meeting and is sure to be contested by many campus members at large if it ever receives serious consideration. Their arguments are valid: Students should have the option to take what they want.

But when our mindset is to achieve, do we seriously consider the benefits of extra free time that we could be using instead of attending an extra class? If we have always taken more classes than needed, have we ever tested the benefits of a few extra hours of mindless relaxation or self-endeavors into things like weekend road trips or full afternoons off just to draw and read for pleasure during the semester?

Caroline Acker, head of the history department and also in attendance at the town hall, noted that professors expend a significant amount of energy investing in a student. When a student drops, the professor fails too. So why not make it harder for students to drop classes on a whim simply because they have added a built-in backup at the beginning of the semester? The lack of an overload option could benefit not only students, but professors as well.

And this is not to say that there would be no exceptions. Students needing extra courses to graduate on time or take certain courses in a particular semester to keep up with a sequence should not be punished with an additional semester. However, for the majority of students who do not need these classes, their time could be spent elsewhere on lighter activities that cater to the mind and body.

It must also be pointed out that, by no means, do a majority of students overload. Therefore, this option would not affect many students. However, it could greatly benefit a subset of the campus that is hooked on units. And it could lessen in the rest of us the need to always feel as though we need to do more.