Friday, November 28, 2014

A Fall Break at UW?

by: Bryan Tolson, FAUW Vice President

"Should classes start on the first Thursday after Labour Day to allow for two additional days off in the fall term?"

Our undergraduates said yes in their November referendum (74% of roughly 20% of eligible voters according to the Daily Bulletin).

My answer to the question above is no.  Starting the term earlier negatively impacts my mental health and my work-life balance. I’m not saying I don’t care about student mental health and well-being.  I certainly do and I think there are means to improve these things for students (see a few paragraphs below). My point is that we need to start this Fall Break discussion by realizing that UW has to balance the perceived improvement to undergraduate student mental health and well-being with the perceived degradation of mental health and well-being to other UW community members such as faculty, staff and graduate students.

The reason UW does not currently have a Fall Break, and would be justified in continuing with this approach, is very simple: Co-op. UW flexibility to accommodate a Fall Break is incredibly constrained, unlike any of the 14 Ontario universities that currently have a Fall Break, by our massive Co-op program, which involves more than half our full-time undergraduates (>60%) and thus has our campus buzzing over the summer.  Providing the co-op program means that a large proportion of faculty members, staff and graduate student TAs are committed to lectures, tutorials, labs and proctoring and then grading exams May through mid-August.  

Based on my personal experience of teaching in almost every spring term since I have been at UW, I can tell you that it is quite limiting to have to plan a family vacation for the final two weeks of August or the first week of September. This is even more frustrating when holiday plans sometimes need to wait until the spring final exam schedule is released in mid-June. 

However, I don’t have it as bad as lecturers who typically teach all three terms in a calendar year. Their only current dependable opportunity to take a two week or longer holiday not over Christmas (they have 4 weeks of holidays to take) is the period between spring exams ending and the start of the fall term. There are also UW staff and faculty who choose to take family holidays during orientation week (week of Labour Day) with the rationale that this is the only dependable non-teaching week outside of December when their family can take a week long holiday that only requires four days of vacation time.  

Perhaps more UW staff and faculty with children at home use the week of Labour Day to deal with the stress of transitioning the family into new routines for the new school year as that is the week their kids return to school.  Adding the work stress of the start of term at UW to that of an already stressful week at home is not very attractive.  For all these reasons, it is not acceptable in my mind to further reduce the potential vacation period at the end of the summer by starting the fall term on Thursday after Labour Day.   

After ruling out an earlier start to the fall term, perhaps the next option the campus would consider is Sunday exams.  Students didn’t answer to this option/question but my answer is again no.  This is not for religious reasons.  Sunday happens to be the only day of the week that I can currently count on having no mandated commitments and thus plan family gatherings for the Christmas season in advance.  Faculty and graduate student TAs all deserve to count on having one such commitment free day a week in December. Faculty and graduate student TAs are already required to work a few Saturdays a year without overtime and I personally think that is fine.     

As I mentioned earlier, I do care about student mental health and well-being and so we should talk about ways to improve this. Here are two approaches that do not require a Fall Break
  1. Follow the advice of a wise student-senator who suggested we just have a 24-48 hr moratorium on deliverables and exams immediately after the Thanksgiving long-weekend.  This is easy in my view and makes complete sense.  We should let the students decompress and not have to work over that weekend.
  2. Use the new campus scheduling software to maximize efficiency of final exam scheduling and constrain the system so that students never write two exams in one day.  While it is entirely plausible that this is not feasible, our campus won’t know for sure until this is tested.  We could even consider melting one of the Columbia Ice sheets to make available more large scale final exam writing space. 
    If the above improvements are not enough and a Fall Break must happen then how about having the break only when the scheduling of Statutory Holidays during the September-December are favourable? Why not just change UW guidelines on the pre-exam study days to say only that there must be a two day break (weekend or weekday, but not statutory holiday) between last day of classes and first day of final exams [actually I think this just partially happened at Nov. Senate meeting – see the minutes, pg 27]? This is arguably better than the current guidelines, which can sometimes yield only a 48 hour study period like this term while in other terms students have 96 hours to study before their first final.

    What about squeezing the final exam period into a 12-day instead of 14-day stretch?  Note that both of these stretches will usually cover two non-exam writing Sundays and so students with perfectly spaced exams would on average go from writing an exam every 2.8 days to every 2.4 days (see #2 above for feasibility assessment of perfectly spaced exams). 

    In fact, the spring term exam period is only 11 days of exams while the other terms have 12 days of exams. If the exam scheduling could be made to work over 11 days, why not move to 11 days of exam writing in all terms? One way to squeeze the exam period without having to rely on the scheduling system software would be to increase the number of exam time slots from four to five per day. This is achievable by changing the first exam time to start at 8 am, moving to only 30 minutes in between exam times and then finishing the last exam at 10:30 pm.

    I believe UW can find the right balance on this issue but it will not be achieved by implementing a Fall Break in the way the students voted for. I’d like to think that a faculty referendum on this issue is not necessary. But if it is, perhaps this question is appropriate:

    “Should classes start on the first Thursday after Labour Day thus, shortening the period between the end of the spring term exam period and the start of the fall term by two working days?"

    1 comment :

    1. It's not actually correct that Lecturers have 4 weeks of vacation. Those in their first decade of employment have one month; those past that time period have one month plus one week. So it's actually harder still for them to take this, if the period between Spring and Fall is shrunk.

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