GVSU community pushes for a fall break to fight student fatigue

By Jenna Fracassi | 10/11/17 11:24pm

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GVL / Emily Frye Students walking on campus on Wednesday October 11, 2017.

It’s that time of the year again—midterm week. For many students, this is when sleep becomes a luxury and coffee becomes an ultimate necessity. 

The end of October is often a time when students start to feel burned out. At Grand Valley State University, students go 77 days straight from Labor Day break to Thanksgiving break.

In an effort to make this long stretch easier to endure, Frederick Antczak, dean of GVSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), has spent the last few years pushing for some type of fall breather. 

“In the absence of a formal fall break, and in light of the fact that students face an unbroken 11-week trudge from Labor Day to the next break at Thanksgiving, fall breather is an invitation to faculty to shift homework away from the weekend before the last date to drop with a 'W'—so, this year, Oct. 21-22,” Antczak said via email. “Fall breather does not call for faculty to reduce work; it only invites those faculty who find it possible to shift work away from this particular weekend.”

The fall breather is not mandatory but rather a suggestion for CLAS faculty. Those who choose to participate are simply encouraged to give students a break from assignments for a weekend, but for now, the effort is only implemented within CLAS. The dates of the 2017 breather were announced in May to give faculty appropriate time to add it to their class schedules.

Eric Harvey, assistant professor in the School of Communications at GVSU, said building in a fall break is "totally necessary."

"That run through September, October and most of November is pretty intense, and other schools have it where they give students a longer weekend, and I think students appreciate it, and faculty can easily work that into their schedule," he said.

Harvey said during the time of late October/early November, faculty frequently discuss the fact that they see different behaviors from students.

"When you make a syllabus, you think about these things," he said. "You think not only about when are assignments due and how much work are you giving students during the average week, but then you also think, 'So all right, once it hits November, there's going to be a little bit of burnout there, and it's completely understandable.'"

To accommodate for this, Harvey said he allows "workshop days" for larger projects where no other assignments are due. 

"As a professor, you can definitely tell (that students are worn down)," he said. "People will miss class, or they will just appear tired, and so yeah, you definitely notice it."

When asked about the complication of fitting the break into the academic calendar, Harvey said the university has remedied bigger things. 

"It can be an administrative nightmare, and when you have thousands of classes going on and students with schedules, thinking (of where to schedule the break) is a big deal, but, I mean, colleges exist to do big things," he said. "I would hope in the future there would be some kind of break built in, but I do understand it's a logistical nightmare."

Jonathan Bowman, GVSU student senate president, said student senate has been working on implementing a campus-wide fall break for years. 

“We’ve been working on it for a couple of years now, and it’s kind of a project the last student senate presidents have worked on, so I’m kind of continuing it this year,” Bowman said. “So the fall breather, we’re kind of changing now to push more toward a fall break, and so we’re trying to get a day off of school.”

Bowman explained that there is difficulty in getting an extra day off because of the way the current academic calendar is set up. For Labor Day break, students get Monday and Tuesday off, and for Thanksgiving, they get off Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, which equates to a full week of classes, allowing for each course to be missed an equal number of days. 

Despite not knowing where to place the day off in the calendar, student senate is still moving forward in trying to achieve a fall break. Bowman said that last year, Lynn Blue, vice president for enrollment development, charged the registrar with looking into this topic further.

“I will be meeting in a couple of weeks with the registrar to kind of talk about it with her and see where exactly we could go with this or how we could figure it out,” Bowman said.

Bowman also pointed out that in the winter semester the calendar is “a lot more broken up” with the addition of spring break. 

“(Spring break) helps second semester,” he said. “But first semester, we don’t really have anything like that, and most schools around our peer institutions and around the state do have some kind of fall break, and so I think it’s important that we kind of match that mindset and work toward that.”

Regarding the break not being mandatory or part of the academic calendar, Antczak said that formal changes in the academic calendar must be recommended by the University Academic Senate (UAS) for approval by central administration and the Board of Trustees.

“Almost all of the other state institutions—including those that sponsor clinicals and internships—have found a way to have some kind of break,” Antczak said. “We do not have a break, and correlated with that are increasing levels of stress and illness on the part of students and even of faculty. Given that the university is interested in increasing retention and particularly retention of first-year students, who may not have ever gone eight, or even seven, consecutive weeks without a break, the idea is well-aligned with university goals. 

“Student government has persistently supported a break, but until we have a break, I invite faculty in CLAS and beyond who find it possible to give their students a breather.”

Colleen Lindsay-Bailey, associate director of Housing and Residence Life at GVSU, said housing staff also recognizes high levels of stress in students during the time of the fall breather.

“We are in support of any initiative that will aid in student support and help with academic stress that students experience this time of year," she said via email. "In Housing and Residence Life we see the effects of academic pressure and stress all year, and this affects remaining balanced in all aspects of life. ... We will always be in support of helping students to be the most successful that they can be."

Bowman stressed the importance of having some type of fall respite for students.

“It’s really important to the mental health of students to have some kind of break or breather to really rejuvenate and kind of catch up on things," Bowman said. "I think students can get overwhelmed throughout the semester, and it’s really key to make sure that students don’t and that they stay healthy both physically and mentally, … and their overall state of mind, I think, would be better if we were to have a fall break or breather.”

For more information on the fall breather, visit www.gvsu.edu/clas/fall-breather-557.htm.

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