Tag: stress culture

After seeing the Commitment Time Management page on CSA’s website, senior Lesley Cordero sent this email to Dean Boyce to inform her about the issues with it. Here’s what she had to say.

Dear Dean Boyce,

As you probably know, the Center for Student Advising recently released this article on time management. I have some serious concerns about the content of this post that I want to share with you.

To quickly summarize, they essentially recommend/outline ~50 hours of studying and~16 hours of class time, totaling to about 66 hours (mind you, this assumes only 15 credits, which as you know you literally cannot graduate with in SEAS). Ignoring the rest of the content momentarily, this expectation lacks thought or concern for your students. Previously, I believed administration was just unaware or doubted how much time we dedicate to classes and school work. Given this post, it’s evident that they are, in fact, aware, which is actually far more alarming. Why is this outrageous workload not being challenged?

Aside from the ethical concerns of working students to such a high number of hours, compared to our peer institutions, we do not seem to outperform other institutions (two simple but powerful examples: number of Rhode Scholars here, number of Fulbright students here), so why is it that we’re working more? For reference, you can check this article on how Columbia students stay up later than all other universities. It’s also important to note that Columbia, not other Ivy League institutions or other top tier universities, had 7 suicides within a year’s time, likely as a result of some of the factors I review in this email.

Furthermore, overworking isn’t an efficient or healthy strategy for producing good work, whether that be research, projects, or just general knowledge learned. In this publication on worker productivity, you’ll see that an increase in number of hours worked has diminishing returns. Here, you’ll also see research on the effects of chronic stress which include diminished health and psychological capacity.

With all that said, I would also like to speak from own experience here at Columbia. I chose to attend a school like Columbia because I love being challenged. Learning, working on meaningful projects and work, excites me to no end, and I genuinely believed that Columbia would be the perfect place to spend my late teens and early twenties working to become my best young adult self.

Columbia has given me so much — friends I genuinely love, countless academic and professional opportunities. But it has failed to cultivate the excitement I came in with as an ambitious and passionate first year. School and academia no longer carries the same positive, growth-driven mindset it once used to. Instead, I’ve grown to associate school with chronic stress, tiredness, and a culture that never seems to keep its student body at ease.

I think this is particularly true for students of color, first generation/low-income students, and anyone whose identities this institution was not built to serve. As outlined in the post this email is about, those calculations are made with the “typical” student in mind, which tends to not be of color or low-income.

To highlight some of the striking misguided calculations:

1. Medical appointments counting for free time is inconsiderate to students with disabilities, many of whom have to spend a large portion of that “free time” on appointments. I, for one, do as a student with a neurological disability.

2. Even on a very simple level, small things like hygiene and professional development are more time consuming for students of color, women, and FLIP students. As a woman of color, I face unique challenges in how the world perceives me. Other students might be able to get away with being unkept — for women and especially women of color, we’re far more scrutinized.

3. 65+ hours of class and work disregards the limitations students with disabilities might have. For many, working long hours is not plausible and even detrimental to their health. As someone with remaining symptoms from a head injury a few years ago, it’s a sacrifice to spend so much extra time on work. I do it because it’s essentially a requirement, but it’s a sacrifice — a sacrifice I would argue isn’t fair to students like me.

4. I’ve had to take up work-study throughout the majority of my time at Columbia, and 8 hours is often a conservative estimate for low income students. Additionally, when you’re on a budget, getting food cheaply (or through free venues) is time consuming. Underestimating those serious challenges fails to appreciate the hard work low-income students put into being a student at Columbia.

There are countless other ways in which these calculations grossly misrepresent the experiences of many students at Columbia. However, I want to emphasize the danger of these misguided calculations. It’s not a matter of pointing out inaccuracies; rather, consider how this high demand workload affects its students and especially its disabled students and students of color. 9 hours a week of free time is not a number we should condone or be proud of.

Now that this post has been released, however, it’s time to radically reconsider the ways we can improve our culture on campus. This means more than suggesting time management skills or having stress buster events. This means institutional change. This means reduced requirements. This means financial aid for 9 or 10 semesters for low-income students.This means more psychological health services. This means more administrative support and listening to students.

I know you want the best Columbia possible. I do too, which is why I decided to reach out to you and share my thoughts and experiences on such an important challenge we’re facing as a community. Thank you for taking the time to read this email, and I hope to see a better Columbia soon.

Best,
Lesley Cordero

Note: Since this letter was written, Dean Valentini has claimed that this chart was not in fact recent but outdated, as reported by Bwog

As we have these conversations about stress culture and mental health, we think it is important to share some of the resources available on campus to members of the Columbia community:

Counseling and Psychological Services – (212) 854-2878
Columbia Health – (212) 854-7426
Office of the University Chaplain – (212) 854-1493
Advising Deans – (212) 854-6378
Nightline – (212) 854-7777

If you’d like to respond to this piece / submit an op-ed to The Lion, please email submissions@thecolumbialion.com

Graphic made by Laura Elizabeth Hand, CC’19

“I’m just too busy.”

“Can’t; got to go to Butler.”

“Just because you want me to come doesn’t mean I will.”

For most Columbia students, keeping track of the number of times their friends and classmates have “flaked” on them or turned down their offers to hang out because of their “busyness” is an impossible task. This can easily be seen in both conversations with peers and the stark difference between the number of people who sign up for events at Columbia versus the number of people who actually show up. As a student body, we are each obsessed with the idea that we do not have downtime. You always need to be working and getting ahead while also espousing the idea that you’re failing all your classes and cannot find enough hours in the day to sleep, let alone let loose and fun. Despite the constant Spec op-eds and Facebook rants bemoaning Columbia’s stress culture and lacking mental health resources, when it comes to us individually doing our parts to remedy the problems we continue to critique, we don’t because we value our own reasons for being stressed above others’ reasons.

“I need to get into medical school.”

“I care about my education.”

“I have to get a 4.0; I’m trying to get into a good law school.”

In each one of these sentiments, we create a metaphorical barrier, an us versus them mentality. We perpetuate the idea that there is a goal we need to constantly struggle to capture and that to a certain extent, those around us are trying to distract us from it.

But what does it mean to be busy? How can we both enjoy the benefits of being students living and learning in America’s busiest city while also capturing these goals? In many ways, we should look to the message encapsulated in Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical, “Sunday in the Park with George.”

For those who have not heard of the show before, it follows the artistic process of famous artist Georges Seurat as he creates and develops the painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Throughout the first act, Seurat is completely fixated on drawing sketches of the people who are ultimately portrayed in his famous painting. As he works on the piece and obsesses over “Finishing the Hat”, he fails to consider the lives and feelings of those around him.

“Finishing the Hat” performed by Jake Gyllenhaal

 

In particular, the audience is exposed to the romantic relationship between Seurat and Dot, the latter being the role played by Ashford. Gyllenhaal who plays his role perfectly as he time and time again dismisses and chides Dot as she complains about having to stand still under the hot sun while Seurat sketches her. Seurat’s goal is to develop a work of art completely like no other. He has had the idea and now is steadfast in achieving its completion. Despite listening to complaints from his love Dot, Seurat does not truly hear and process them as they conflict with his direct desires. Dot even tells him:

Yes, George, run to your work.
Hide behind your painting.
I have come to tell you I am leaving because I thought you might
care to know-foolish of me, because you care about nothing-

In being so passionate about his goal, he forgets the people in his own life. As the plot develops and Dot eventually moves on, after realizing she cannot stay with Seurat, he still fails to address it, instead retreating further into his work.

Like a Columbia student dedicating so much time to their specific craft, they lean on it as their excuse and crutch. Just as Seurat in the production cannot escape his work, we too cannot see beyond our work: our looming deadlines, upcoming exams, next club/board/committee/council meetings, impending fellowship and scholarship applications, and imminent job and internship interviews. The list of work we each have goes on and on, adding to our lists of reasons to skip that food truck fair in Brooklyn we talked with our friends about for months, or miss seeing that old friend who is visiting NYC over break, or cancel plans to go to that free (or extremely cheap) event that we RSVP’d to as going on Facebook. We look at the world and people around us in the same manner that Dot describes as being characteristic of George:

As if he sees you and he doesn’t all at once.

Instead of fully valuing those around us and the opportunities we have, we simply ignore them — out of sight out of mind — and obsess over our work. And while we did come here to learn, we need to really understand that there is more to a Columbia education than just mentally locking ourselves into libraries and priding ourselves in unhealthy sleep habits.

As students, we need to break out of using our work and goals as an excuse. Dedicate more time to trying something new, leaving Butler and going off-campus, finding the color and lights that can brighten our days rather than groveling. As much as having dreams and passions is great, so is being able to explore new topics and brighten the day of others by just listening to them and putting in the effort to get to know more about them and their passions.

Tickets to “Sunday in the Park with George” can be purchased here. Performances run until April 23rd, 2017.

Image courtesy of freshNYC

How would you describe yourself?

Most people can immediately come up with at least a few adjectives to summarize their personalities, and when these people are asked how well they know themselves on a scale of 1-10, the answers are overwhelmingly above 8. When asked to estimate if their ‘core’ personalities have remained consistent over time, the majority agree that while they have indeed changed, certain fundamental aspects of themselves remain the same.

People make important decisions based on the idea that personality continuity often underlies individual growth. You believe that person you choose to marry has essential qualities  which will remain good, that criminals have essential qualities which will remain bad, and that the people in your life all have dependable qualities. When attributing the incredible successes or failures of CEOs, celebrities, or pro-athletes, most tend to credit or blame their personalities.

While this convincing story pervades our culture, modern research indicates that this idea of an individual’s consistent personality is just a myth. A few months ago, the longest-running study on personality was published. Begun in 1947, teachers were asked to rate their fourteen-year old students on six personality traits. Sixty-three years later, researchers tracked down as many of the original participants as they could and analyzed their personalities.

Upon analysis, none of the six traits showed any significant stability across the time-span. While ideas about personality and experimental methods have changed drastically in the intervening decades, more modern neuroscientific research backs up these sorts of long-running surveys with fMRI studies of the changing brain.

While many ‘tests’ of personality exist on the internet, almost none of them hold any neuropsychological weight. This includes the famed Myers-Briggs model, which sorts individuals into sixteen distinct personalities according to four to five traits, each with a corresponding letter. If you have ever had someone tell you they are an ENFP, or INTJ, that’s the model they’re referring to. Though certainly entertaining, such tests have long-been discredited for being too myopic and binning people into binary categorizations.

Although many scientists disagree, the generally-accepted model of personality these days is the Big-Five, which gives individuals a rating from 1-100 on five distinct traits — Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. If you are interested, this is the best way to take it online.

Recently, neuroscientists have begun to examine how high scores on various factors in the Big Five might map onto brain structure. Using structural MRI, one team examined brain volume as it varies with brain region size, finding that extroverts had a larger medial orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region which processes reward. This area is heavily implicated in response to social reward, so it is  possible that extroverts enjoy social interactions because they supply them with a ‘hit’ of dopamine.

Increased scores on neuroticism correlate with bigger brain regions associated with threat, punishment, and negative behavior. It is possible that neurotic people feel the potential threat of a negative event more powerfully than those with smaller cingulate cortices, and therefore are more concerned over potentially troubling events.

Agreeableness correlated with a larger lateral prefrontal cortex, a region that loosely corresponds with planning and higher-order processing. Though they did not find a significant association with Openness, neuroscientists found some possible correlations with parts of the parietal cortex associated with integrating sensory stimuli.

While this study did not use functional MRI to tell us what regions are activated when exhibiting behaviors associated with these traits, there does appear to be some association between the sizes of these brain regions and an individual’s personality.

If psychology research tells us personality changes drastically over time, and neuroscience research indicates that our brains reflect our personalities, what underlying mechanisms in our brains are underlying these changes?

Some potential clues lie in memory research. A large body of evidence tells us that each time a memory is ‘accessed’, it is altered, sometimes dramatically, before going back into storage. As experiences pile up in our lifetimes, the memories we make are incorporated into the ways we face new information, and change the ways we make decisions.

The other massive factor in our decision-making comes from our surroundings — specifically, our social surroundings. The cultural norms which permeate a place can strongly influence how a personality changes over time, as new experiences permeate the neural wiring. With that in mind, it’s hard to think of a more distinct social environment in the U.S. than our home, New York City itself.

When asked what made a person a New Yorker, former mayor Edward Koch put it most succinctly: “you have to live here for six months, and if at the end of the six months you find you walk faster, talk faster, think faster, you’re a New Yorker.”  I have certainly found that a few years here have changed me in more ways than knowledge gained in the classroom — parts of my personality seem fundamentally altered by my time living in Columbia and in adapting to the the unique social norms such a city carries.

In a place as hectic, stressful, and sometimes isolating as New York City, the unconscious effect of environment likely affects us all. Combined with a student population of high-achieving and hard-working Columbians, it’s possible our particularly potent stress culture might be drawing heavily from the city itself for fuel. While we often talk about the culture-shock of NYC on many of our students during orientation weeks, we rarely take the time to analyze how exactly our city might be changing us.

Maybe the pressures of Columbian sub-culture paired with tough-it-out mentality of the city makes us feel busier and more focused, and therefore primes to think faster and act smarter. Maybe some of these changes are positive, learning how to ‘tough it out’ certainly has its benefits. But I’m more worried about the negatives, about how a city so known for indifference may be affecting our compassion and human integrity.

Luckily, any negative characteristics our brains may be picking up from the city aren’t permanent. The same neuroplasticity which hardened us can prioritize compassion again, if we make a conscious effort to make others as important as our busy schedules. We have the ability to change our own culture of Columbia and only let the positive aspects of the city in.

Remi Free/Senior Graphics Editor

I fondly remember the first time I arrived at Columbia. There was a humongous smile across my face as the taxi driver drove my mother and me through the College Walk gates for CUE move in. All those months of high school paid off and I was about to start classes at a school I never imagined I’d ever attend. My mind was racing as I tried to meticulously plan my schedule and goals for the next four years. It felt like I found my new home and nothing could go wrong.

Fast forward two years as I was wrapping up sophomore year. I was running on five hours of sleep, stressed beyond measure, and profusely sweating as I moved my stuff out of my residence hall and into a storage facility for the summer.

Instead of all the happy memories I had when I first arrived to Columbia, my mind was just — bitter. I wanted out. I just wanted to move out and head home and get as far away from Morningside Heights as I could.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love Columbia and all the resources it has to offer, but with all these benefits come the inevitable pitfalls of attending one of the most stressful and prestigious universities in the world.

As I progressed through each semester at Columbia, I slowly adapted to some of our school’s more detrimental traditions. I would stay up until the early hours of the morning working, overload myself with too many classes and commitments than I should have gone through with. I would fall into the constant conversation trap of discussing how many hours you spent studying in Butler on a given day as if that meant anything (news flash: it means absolutely nothing). Even as I tried harder and harder in my classes, I continued to perform below my own expectations and goals.

It didn’t help that some of my professors seemed to encourage students to engage in these traditions. In one of my classes, my professor seemed proud of the fact that he expected you to still perform poorly on his tests no matter how much you studied and that he hoped others wouldn’t help you when you struggled on your homework assignments. It got so bad that whenever they sent announcements to our class, I actually felt a sense of dread; I just wanted it to be over.

As I boarded my flight back home after leaving my storage unit, I felt myself feel happy and relaxed for the first time in a while.

So this upcoming semester, I’m going to do something different. I am not going to let myself fall prey to trying to underhandedly compete with others on how little sleep I got or how much time I spent sitting in Butler. Instead, I’m going to work on taking the classes I love, setting aside more time for myself and exploring the city. I actively intend to talk with my professors more and be more willing to tell them when I think they’re adding to Columbia’s already troubling stress culture.

When first year me arrived on campus, he looked forward to being his authentic self and not letting others get the best of him. Hopefully junior year me can make sure to bring that attitude and spirit back into fashion.

The Lion is the only Columbia publication with an open submissions policy. To respond to this op-ed or to submit one of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

I need help.

When combined, these three simple words create one powerful phrase. Yet, one could count the number of times they have heard Columbia students say this phrase on one hand. And that’s a problem.

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