Work-Life Boundaries at UChicago

Why the University needs to help draw the line between schoolwork and life.

By Emma Weber

I’m sure we’ve all thought about what a post-corona campus will look like—what is the “new normal” that everyone is talking about? When will we be able to study together, eat together, party together? Though worries and frustrations about continued social restrictions are at the forefront of many of our minds, such regulations are temporary; they are beginning to be relaxed across the world as we pass the peak of this pandemic. What could remain permanent is the shift in the relationship between work and technology. Technology has made work possible during this period of self-isolation, but at what cost?

Let’s start with the positives. Professors have been forced to acclimate, with varying degrees of success, to hosting lectures and discussions on Zoom, and utilizing other online platforms and resources to adapt an in-person syllabus to one taught over the screen. As we transition back to in-person modes of teaching, this technical knowledge hopefully will not go to waste. Recorded classes allow for more flexible schedules as they can be watched at any time, and can be played back or paused to better digest material. Now that faculty are familiar with the technology that facilitates this, they could easily integrate recordings and online material into their curricula. Previously recorded classes could be shared with students unable to attend, or for those who might require them to aid their understanding of material. Under extenuating circumstances, meetings and office hours could be held online again.

We might also be able to mitigate a lot of pre-reg stress. Currently, some classes, such as Econ 100, are consistently oversubscribed and hard to get a seat in. They could easily be livestreamed and recorded, meaning that those who usually would have been forced to defer taking the class would have the option to take it virtually. This could be a lifesaver for those who need certain classes in order to graduate.

Yet, I would argue that the costs of virtual learning heavily outweigh the benefits. Being able to take class from bed may seem like a blessing, but here lies the issue: Online learning has been a struggle for many of us this quarter due to the blurring boundaries between work and leisure. I wake up, check Instagram, then alternate between Zoom lectures, Zoom study sessions and Zoom hangouts, with hours spent scrolling through my Facebook timeline interspersed. It’s no wonder my laptop usually crashes before I do these days. It feels as though every aspect of my life has been conducted through a screen for the past couple months, and with work and play literally clicks away from one another, it has been hard to focus, but even harder to relax.

Carving out work-life boundaries at an institution where we joke about the first floor of the Reg being the hub of social life is difficult enough. Striking a balance between taking challenging classes, dedicating time to extracurricular interests and proving to yourself that fun hasn’t died is nigh impossible. The online quarter, rather than alleviating some of this stress, has made matters worse. Being trapped at home means there is this pressure (both internal and external) to be constantly connected, to the point where I can only feel justified in being unplugged when technical issues or sickness makes it physically impossible to do so. There is the sense that since the social aspect of our lives has diminished, we have greater freedom… to do more work. And, as psychologist Barry Schwartz put it: It is technology that has enabled us to carry out this “work every minute of every day from any place on the planet.”

A lot of this pressure is self-wrought, but there are still steps the University can take to combat this tendency towards overwork and consequent burnout, and to make it easier for us as students to resurrect the boundaries that technology has blurred.

This quarter being shortened by a week mirrors one of the changes to the academic calendar proposed in February, which looks set to exacerbate already-high levels of work-related stress in the student body. The quarter we just went through, demanding enough under the given circumstances, was made worse by deadlines piling up in second week and my spare time being eaten away unpicking rushed notes as 10 weeks’ worth of content was crammed into nine. The reframing of the reading period to include the weekend also perpetuates an incredibly toxic mindset that free time is simply more time to study. The weekend is a chance to recharge, reset, and maybe catch up on work. But the latter is a choice we should be able to make ourselves, and we should definitely not be spending our Saturdays sitting exams, as some departments proposed in order to compensate for the shortened quarter.

Under the circumstance of continued online classes, scheduling should be made more flexible—recorded lectures can be watched at any time, so students can take advantage of being able to select classes that overlap in real time. However, the duration of classes should be fixed; professors should be barred from overrunning indefinitely, assuming that if we do not have another class it is okay to take up more of our time. It makes it difficult for students to solidify a routine when we don’t even know what time our classes will finish at.

Some classes have been cut short and replaced by asynchronous components. Quite often the lack of a clear time limit for these means they end up taking a lot longer than the scheduled class time would have. As we return to in-person classes, I hope that the use of these components will be greatly reduced, for they often tend toward busywork and do not actually enhance learning. They could easily be replaced with structured office hours—in one of my classes, we have had 30-minute calls with our professor to discuss readings. This works really well, because, like with class, there is a designated period of time to focus, making these sessions more productive than work done independently.

It is no easy feat to transition a whole quarter’s worth of teaching online at the drop of a hat, and I applaud the University, the staff, and admin for allowing us to continue our education during these trying times. Yet, online learning has highlighted how easily our work spills over into leisure, and there is much that can be done on the University’s end to help us construct clearer boundaries between the two.

Emma Weber is a second-year in the College.