The Overwork Ethic
I recently received an e-mail from a freshman at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It began: “I’m trying to follow your advice and avoid killer semesters, but it seems kind of hard.”
He then detailed his crowded course schedule, which included electrical engineering, physics, computer science, and an organic chemistry class, the last of which he described as “hellish,” because it included a time-consuming lab in addition to regular problem sets.
“I know that on your site and stuff it says avoid doing shit like this,” he admitted, “but I’m not really sure what to do.”
This last line confused me.
If a student says he “doesn’t know what to do” about a tough course schedule, you might expect he needs the courses to complete his major and graduate on time, or perhaps to meet the requirements of a graduate program. Clearly, however, physics, computer science, and organic chemistry can’t all be part of the same major or program prerequisites. Furthermore, this student was in the first semester of his freshman year: how could he possibly be feeling credit pressure already?
When I dug deeper, it turned out that he had no particular reason to be taking those classes. In fact, as he later admitted, he arrived at college with a ton of AP credits, and could, if he so decided, coast to graduation early without ever taking a hard semester.
The real reason for his killer course load was that he was considering transferring schools, and felt, with an unquestioned certainty, that doing more was important for standing out. “I guess that having a schedule like this looks more impressive on my transfer apps,” he said
The idea that killer schedules are necessary to be impressive was so deeply ingrained in this student that the idea of simplifying his course load never crossed his mind as an option.
This mindset is a problem that we must solve before we can make progress with the Romantic Scholar approach to student life, as it’s near impossible to find fulfillment in your school work when you’re constantly struggling to keep up with an overwhelming load.
To convince you to do less, however, I must first convince you that doing more is not a reasonable alternative…