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Blending Work and Play

The Undergraduate

By Judd B. Kessler

By this time each year—right before winter break—it only takes a glance at your stressed-out roommates to recognize that between meetings, work, class, problem sets and papers, Harvard students don’t get to socialize much.

This paucity shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. It’s obvious that the admissions office at 8 Byerly Hall favors students with good grades and student group leadership ambition. Nowhere on the admissions application are we asked how often we party or how many hours we spend chilling on the couch with our friends.

But elimination of stress—generally achieved through leisure time and recreation—is necessary to stay happy and healthy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, college students are at higher risk for diseases like meningitis because, among other reasons, our immune systems do not respond well to so much stress.

In recognition of a stressed-out undergraduate population, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 wrote a letter to incoming first-years this summer. In it he explained that “[Y]ou are more likely to sustain the intense effort needed to accomplish first-rate work in one area if you allow yourself some leisure time, some recreation, some time for solitude...” He went on to advise students to do less—specifically no more than one “major” and one “minor” extracurricular activity simultaneously.

But asking first-years, or any Harvard students, to give up their extracurricular activities is like asking the college to decrease the academic workload as a way to improve students’ social lives and eliminate stress—it goes against the nature of the university and it’s not fair. Just as admissions officers choose to admit applicants based on academic and extracurricular success, students matriculate at Harvard for the expansive opportunities available in these same two spheres.

Generally, Harvard students won’t slow down. We refuse to settle; we want it all and work to balance our academics, extracurricular activities and social lives. And frustrated by the limitations of our paltry 168 hours each week, we complain about our languishing social lives. Each weekend, we attempt to salvage them with long party nights and lots of alcohol. We struggle to squeeze as much social activity as possible into the limited time available. At Harvard-Yale tailgates, we drink enough for an entire semester. Events like this past weekend’s incestfest at Kirkland House offer enough potential hook-ups to satisfy a student’s libido for the entire year.

We need another way to make room for the social at Harvard. The puritanical roots of the University run deep—feeding the myth that being an effective and successful student requires constant seriousness and social abstinence. If we don’t already do so, Harvard teaches us to compartmentalize our lives—working hard on one hand, playing hard on the other.

But this atmosphere creates stress and is generally unhealthy. We should look for ways to better integrate our social lives into the rest of our world. In the same way that periodic naps boost productivity, a social presence and more relaxed atmosphere can improve our work and our health simultaneously. Effectively, we are more efficient if we allow for the blending of our work and our play.

First we must target and destroy the assumption that having a social life means getting really drunk in a dark crowded room. We must fight the fear of procrastination and allow the social to span the week. When we combine it with our academic and extracurricular activities, we become healthier, happier and even more productive.

The social and the extracurricular are easily meshed. By making our student group offices and work environments more socially comfortable, we can better relax. When working with others, trust and friendship improve group productivity—creating informal relationships makes work-based interactions less stressful and intimidating. Student groups should invest in the well-being of their participants by buying stereos for their offices and stocking microfridges with soda and snacks.

Professors should lead the charge of bringing the social into the academic. Good teachers can create a more relaxed atmosphere during lecture without distracting from the learning process. Perpetuating a “be quiet and listen to me” atmosphere prevents students from enjoying the time spent in the uncomfortable Science Center seats. Students should also take the initiative, recognizing that lectures are much more fun when you sit with your friends. Section leaders should add humor and food to their classes to make them feel more like conversations and debates with friends and colleagues than 15 students simultaneously striving for validation from their TF.

Students should also feel comfortable discussing their work over video games, Brain Break and Instant Messenger. Rather than complaining to their friends about how much work they have and then sequestering themselves for all-nighters, students should discuss thesis research and tutorial paper topics with their peers. Problem sets should be done together over pizza, not just over gnawed pencils and TI-83s. The notion that being social is a form of procrastination stresses students out even further and discourages necessary and potentially productive downtime from Harvard schedules. We shouldn’t close ourselves off and demand a work-free social life or social-free work.

Sure, more weekend parties are great; but if we all work to make Harvard a more social campus—from our offices to our classrooms—we will no longer need them to salvage a stressful week. The week itself will be enough.

Judd B. Kessler ’04 is an economics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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