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Overworked and not even paid

(December 2, 1999, Gazette)

By Kelley Power

Looking in the mirror the other day, I saw that those thin little red lines had finally arrived: my bloodshot eyes were heralding the beginning of another attack of post-mid-term break hysteria. You know the feeling, when not just your every waking hour, but even your dreams are filled with worry over tomorrow’s test, this week’s deadlines and – the mother of them all – final exams.

During this time your control slips away a day at a time and before long you find yourself grovelling for extensions and brewing that extra strong pot of coffee to get you through another all-nighter. Not only that, but whatever bug is going around, now’s the time when you’re going to catch it.

Of course, ‘post-mid-term break hysteria’ is just my affectionate term for what is simply an overwhelming amount of stress. Ah, you say, now there’s a concept I can relate to! How could you not when it’s become part of this decade’s pop-culture, appearing in every magazine, book and television program. Stress, we are told, is a fact of life and a byproduct of success.

While I don’t have complete faith in that philosophy, on some level I must have bought into it because unless school is causing me stress, I don’t really feel like I’m accomplishing anything. The reasoning there, I suppose, is that if I actually have a night to myself, one where I’m not closing out the QEII, then I must be slacking off; there’s always something that needs doing, isn’t there?

Well sure, there’s always something you could do. You could always tackle that assignment with the November deadline at the beginning of the semester.

Yeah, right.

Who actually does that? Not only is it totally contrary to student-nature, it is virtually impossible because your knowledge of the topic is only minimally developed so early in the term. However, flipping to the other side of the coin, there are far too many who leave said assignment to be written frantically the night before it’s due. So where is the happy medium?

After much thought, I have come to this conclusion: early in the semester, reading is important. While your schedule is relatively free from deadlines and exams, make an effort to get through the text books – you’ll have to do it eventually to prepare for the final, so why not start early?

Around mid-semester the extras start creeping in: lab tests, papers, mid-terms and the like. At this point, studying takes precedence and, as much as you hate it, visits to the library become a regular feature of your weekly ritual. Now might be a good time to stop going downtown every weekend (put that money aside to buy yourself a book on stress-management) and settle into some kind of routine. You’ll need the discipline for the end of the term, when all hell breaks loose.

Having said that, let me now confess that I’ve never managed to develop so structured a system, no matter how many times I’ve committed myself to doing so at the beginning of the semester.

I’ll be the first to admit that the stress I feel in the latter part of the term is partly my own fault. But I think that by their very nature university courses require an exceptional amount of work as the semester ends.

As I mentioned before, most of the initial part of the term is dedicated to establishing a base of knowledge in the topic of study. In actuality, then, a semester offers only a few weeks in which assignments and tests can be scheduled. In order to avoid having only one or two sources from which to compile a student’s final mark – I personally don’t want an exam worth 100 per cent – instructors must spread a number of tasks over the last weeks of the semester.

When every professor does the same thing, the obvious result is an excessive amount of work within a short period of time. Panic sets in and, Voila! You find yourself experiencing post-mid-term break hysteria.

Now, understanding that there may be a reasonable explanation for a course-work bottle neck at term’s end doesn’t stop me from speculating that there may be a little conspiracy afoot. Every time I walk into a prof’s office, I expect to see a book with a title like, Tips For Creating The Most Mind-Torturing, Stress-Filled Three Weeks Imaginable For Your Students, or Pushing Them Over The Edge: Ten Easy Ways To Maximize Student Suffering. I haven’t seen one yet, but I’m patient.

In all seriousness though, an abundance of work at the end of the semester is unavoidable no matter how well you regulate your schedule. Stress is inevitable, so it’s best to dig in and learn how to deal with it. There’s a wealth of stress-management literature available out there. Read through it. You’ll probably find that many of the suggestions offered require a minimal change to your lifestyle.
I picked out a few to share with you.

Who’d have thought it, but there’s something to be said for taking a deep breath and counting to 10 after all. Do it periodically during the day, not just when you feel that an explosion is imminent. Also very important is exercise: at least three times a week for about 30 minutes. You elevator users might try taking a few flights of stairs next time you’re in the library. And how about this suggestion: just smile once in a while. Don’t lose your sense of humour.

There are more, but the tip I find particularly helpful is taking time out for yourself, even when your schedule tells you it’s impossible. Relax, sleep, watch a movie – choose your own medicine. I think you need it if only to maintain good mental health.

Me? I’m just going to grab a book (nothing school related, of course) and draw a warm bath. It’s time for a break. I think I feel a sore throat coming on.