Overworked, Burnt Out

As many of us are gearing up for that final push of the semester, this seems like an excellent point to remind everyone that the faculty are indeed not trying to run students into the ground with project work. Keith Hopper, Entrepreneur in Residence, weighs in.

Most people I’ve spoken to at Olin about being overworked acknowledge that it can be a problem here, risking the creation of an environment that negatively impacts learning. It’s not just students. The few faculty and administration I’ve spoken to about overwork seem to agree.

It might be easy to blame faculty, because of the assignments they give and the courseload, but this can’t be the full story. Similarly, it would be easy to assume that students just voluntarily take on too much, but it’s likely not that simple either. I wonder if the structure and resources of Olin itself might set up a potential problem.

Olin is an environment that rewards taking on a lot of stuff. Of course, the nature of project- based education is you can’t just study for a test, take it, and be done. Most projects will take as much effort as you’re willing to give them. The final tends to be a project deliverable, and most of these deliverables coincide at the end of the semester. As the semester wraps up, some students probably aren’t sleeping. They’re just trying to get it all done, although arguably this happens at any high-performing school.

Additionally, Olin provides endless opportunities to engage outside of classwork. There’s clubs, and SLAC, and a cornucopia of tools, resources, machines, and materials to learn and create with. Wrapped around all this are several structures that encourage more engagement, like passionate pursuits, self-directed courses, SERV, and co-curriculars. And those are just the ones off the top of my head. These all seem like a great, even critical part of the Olin experience, but do endless opportunities for creative engagement come with a downside?

Perhaps there are ways we might improve the situation without sacrificing what makes Olin such an amazing place. Better defining the problem and designing experiments to reduce overwork or its impact seems like the Olin way. For example, what if we experimented with fewer curricular projects, but ones that went further? This might provide the opportunity to vary the pace of work across semesters and courses and reduce switching costs and distractions from juggling too many simultaneous things. Alternatively, class projects might be broken up into more discrete efforts to vary the pace of work within a semester. I already see some faculty nudging courses in this direction.

I could also see the benefits to just making overwork and student engagement a more active topic of discussion and directed learning. For example, it’s important for all of us to learn when to explore and try many things and when to turn away the distractions and follow through with fewer things. We all need to make decisions throughout our lives on how much we should be taking on and how broad that sweep is. I see Olin as a great place to explore these ideas, and ideal if all of us (not just students) could avoid learning the hard way to the point of getting overworked and overwhelmed.