The reality of creating a Fall Reading Break at McGill

At first glance, it seems simple enough; just shift the academic schedule a few days here or a few days there to make room for a much-needed Fall Reading Break. After all, universities in other provinces have successfully created a fall break, as has the Polytechnique here in Montreal. Why should McGill be any different? The McGill Reporter sat down with Ollivier Dyens, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) to find out.

At first glance, it seems simple enough; just shift the academic schedule a few days here or a few days there to make room for a much-needed Fall Reading Break. Students have been clamouring for it for years, citing the need to relieve mid-term stress and better manage their mental health needs. Two years ago, the SSMU passed a motion of support in favour of a two-day Fall Reading Break to be appended to the Thanksgiving holiday. What is more, universities in other provinces have successfully created a fall break, as has the Polytechnique here in Montreal. Why should McGill be any different?

The McGill Reporter sat down with Ollivier Dyens, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) to find out.

In the student press and in student government, there’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about having a Fall Reading Break at McGill. What steps have been taken?

Two years ago, I went to see the then-Registrar Kathleen Massey to ask if we could explore the possibility of having a Fall Reading Break. It seems to me – from an anecdotal point-of-view – that it would help at least first-year students take a breather and get back on track; they might have fallen behind a bit, because the first semester at McGill is really difficult. And maybe we could improve mental health at the same time.

She said, “Yes, by all means, we’ll look into it.” She created a small ad-hoc committee. She consulted with students. They ran a survey (I believe the questions in the survey were drafted with students). And here is what happened: a number of issues made the fall break impossible.

What factors influenced the decision to NOT move forward with this initiative?

There was a number of constraints, and no one was really ready to make any concessions around them. The current semester that we have cannot support two or three days off, because there are issues with the number of contact hours. In Engineering, for example, contact hours are mandated by the professional order, and there’s just not enough time in the semester. The only way to get a few more days off is to do one of the following things:

  • Start before Labour Day. And no one wants to do that. We got push-back from Faculty, and push-back from some students. From students, because it would mean that if we started in the last days of August, they would have an extra month of rent to pay, for example, and that creates other problems. No one wanted that.
  • Make the (Christmas) holiday break shorter. In recent years, students have said that they wanted a longer holiday break, because a lot of them are international students or non-Quebec students, and they wanted to have time to go back home. No one wanted to cut that down.
  • Create an even more intensive exam period. And I’m the one who said “No.” Because the whole point is to improve students’ mental health; to have a more intensive exam period just completely defeats the purpose – it’s already very intense. That would have meant exams on Saturdays, more costs, more pressure on students. There’s just no point.

On top of that, research is very inconclusive on the Fall Reading Break increasing wellness.

So while we’d love to have one, we just can’t. A couple of faculties actually said “we will not participate in a Fall Reading Break” for different reasons. I can’t have a fall break for 75 per cent of students but not 100 per cent of students. It will create more stress, more problems. So as long as we’re not ready to have either a shorter holiday break, or start before Labour Day, it’s not going to happen.

Other universities have Fall Reading Breaks. How is McGill’s student population any different from that of other universities?

[We have] 30 per cent international students and 20 per cent non-Quebec (Canadian) students. Meaning at least 50 per cent of our students either live in residence, or need to find an apartment in Montreal, and probably are not in Montreal for 12 months a year. [Adding] August makes a difference for them. When they want to go home, the closest destinations are Ottawa and Toronto, and then from that point on it’s kilometres and thousands of kilometres away. That is the difference between [McGill’s and other universities’] populations.

How can students mitigate the mental health challenges they experience during the fall term, if a Fall Reading Break is not an option?

It’s just good “hygiene de vie” (life hygiene); I think students know that. Eating well, sleeping well, being physically active, not cramming a week before the exam and spending the whole night cramming. Having good time-management skills. Not using any performance-enhancing drugs (like Ritalin), coffee and cigarettes.

There’s no silver bullet. It’s good time-management skills, and I think first-years are probably new at this; they get better in second and third year. It is something we are concerned about, but I think the tools are there.

Is it at all possible that this issue may be revisited in the future?

Not until there’s some concessions on these points. I’ve told students: find me a solution and I’m more than happy to consider it.


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Concerned U3
6 years ago

So somehow, McGill is one of the only universities in Canada- let alone North America, that doesn’t have the capacity to incorporate a fall term break for it’s students? The reality is that many students at this school don’t really have a 5 day, 9-5 work week, with time during weekdays and weekends to take a break from studying. There is always work to be done in a competitive school like McGill that demands top efforts for achievement. It’s not the job of the student body to figure out how to do incorporate a break, or how to “better manage… Read more »

Claire Brown
6 years ago

Most other universities in Canada have a 12 week term. McGill has 13. Not sure if the term could be cut down by one week to allow for the break.

Also a concerned U3
6 years ago

I strongly second what “a concerned U3 said”, moreover, I find it extremely shameful that Ollivier Dyens engages in responsibilising students for having mental health issues: this whole interview is basically Dyens removing himself from any responsibility for further helping students’ mental health, and blaming them for having those issues with an extensive list of “advice”… This is particularly shameful given Dyens’ current dismantling of mental health services, read more from the former head of mcgill’s mental health services:

Another concerned U3
6 years ago

I take particular issue with the point on a shorter holiday break. This article states, “No one wanted to cut that down”, a completely false statement if referring to the survey. I was a student who took part in the survey and responded that I would prefer to have a shorter winter break if it meant a couple days off during the semester. Many of my classmates felt, and still feel the same way. Further, how someone can say that the research on the effectiveness of a break is inconclusive, but write an article using misleading statements and baseless arguments.… Read more »

From another university with a Fall break
6 years ago

I find this quite fascinating. Perhaps the exploration of this issue by McGill didn’t include asking peer institutions, because I am at Dalhousie in Halifax … a university with around 65% of its students coming from out of province or out of country …. and we implemented a two day Fall break years ago and for the past few years we’ve had a full week-long Fall break (appended to Remembrance Day). This break does have implications – our exam period ends a bit closer to the winter break – but we don’t start any earlier than usual. And to compensate… Read more »

One of the many concerned U3 students
6 years ago

The fact that our very own Deputy Provost passes off the solution as having better time-management skills heavily proves that our administration has no clue what their very own students go through in their McGill career. While it is true that the consensus is that first years do have a hard time transitioning, the fact the Deputy Provost mentions only this one group is a flagrant disregard of the reality of the rest of the student body! While this article uses the nature of a ‘diverse’ campus to support the lack of a fall reading week, diversity also means that… Read more »

Former undergraduate student
6 years ago

Coming out of a non-Montreal highschool in Quebec and attending McGill for 3 years, I have been able to compare the McGill Fall semester to that of other Quebec Universities, where all of my highschool friends went. I can honestly say that although mid-semester, when things are piling up and students feel they could really use a break, seeing my friends in other universities getting a break made me really wish McGill had embraced this. However, by the end of the semester, you can really see the difference. Being able to end classes a week earlier than all of the… Read more »

6 years ago

Last year, McGill started class at the end of August, prior to the ling weekend for Labour Day.
Your argument regarding rent makes no sense. Was any sincere thought by you and McGill put into this problem?

graduating senior
6 years ago

McGill already has a longer semester than other comparable institutions, and we’re already starting before Labour Day. I don’t see why it is so difficult to rearrange the academic schedule in each course to allow for a fall break, or an extended long weekend. McGill also has a vastly underfunded, sub par mental health system. You can’t refuse to fund /support mental health services at the school, and continue to lecture students about ‘proper health hygiene’ when the same institution is not providing them ANY support to do so. I honestly wonder if Ollivier Dyens could be more out of… Read more »

U1 Student
6 years ago

This interview is very frustrating because the facts don’t add up. All of my friends at other Canadian students did not have to arrive in August at the beginning this year like we did, and they STILL get a fall reading week. The arguments about Christmas break don’t make sense as well, because for example u of t, with just as big of a population of international students as McGill, still gets a reading week. Administration needs to think harder about this, because it would benefit all students and help people get through a very stressful time in the year.

Eng U3 Student
6 years ago

From previous comments I gather the rhetoric was too transparent here; regardless I cannot stress enough that students are willing to make the sacrifices to get a full fall reading break. Students need relief from the objectively stressful McGill experience; a fall reading week is a tangible improvement to mental health. Dyens shares the blame with students: a gross misrepresentation, and it should be publicized as such.

Mina Darvishi
6 years ago

Perhaps you could look for a solution in a university like the University of Toronto that has a better ranking than us and still manages to have a fall break and has happier students. Saying that we should just have a better lifestyle, is like telling someone with depression to just “try to be happier”!! Do you know why we might not have the healthiest lifestyle? because when you have to do 2 tests, 3 assignments, 2 projects and 1 presentation in one week, and you care about your GPA, you WILL NOT have the time to cook, exercise or… Read more »

current undergrad
6 years ago

In response to the former undergraduate, high schools and cegeps both have lighter course loads than universities, and they’re structured differently than universities, so this is a false comparison. We should be looking to other universities. I don’t understand why other universities in Canada somehow manage the fall reading break, when McGill deems it unnecessary. What is it about McGill that makes the students here immune to the need for a fall reading week, when schools just as competitive (UofT!) somehow manage it? McGill may think it’s special, but we, the students, aren’t somehow immune to problems students at other… Read more »

Victor Chisholm
6 years ago

Starting the fall semester in August could have impacts on summer programs and activities, whether academic or outside the university, paid or unpaid (internships, research placements, summer jobs, etc.), and whether we are talking about what McGill can offer or what students are able to participate in.
This is not to ignore the other concerns raised – or to say that this is an unmanageable concern – it is simply one more thing to consider.

Recent Grad
6 years ago

I’d love to know which faculties said they wouldn’t “participate” in this. Does this mean that Senate members from certain faculties said they would not vote to approve the changes required for a Fall break? Was it feedback from professors? Do weird inter-faculty politics and governance issues trump student needs? If it is a matter of the start or end dates of term being different, I don’t see how a faculty could opt-out. If it’s a matter of some professors running classes through the reading break, 1. This wouldn’t impede other faculties’ ability to have a break and 2. Short… Read more »

Not Cassie's Sister
6 years ago

“On top of that, research is very inconclusive on the Fall Reading Break increasing wellness.”
Upon testing Little Jimmy’s dopamine levels before and after time spent with a loving family we can conclude that a week in absence of irrational deadlines, crushing loneliness and restricted access to joy have a positive effect on any.normal.human.
Sources: Common Sense

6 years ago

letting you all know that discussion is happening here, where replies can be threaded.

Concerned U3
6 years ago

one thing never considered: how about looking at shortening summer break?
this would be the best solution. take one or two weeks away and give us fall break and a longer winter break as its shorter than everyone elses.
also to the person who said Cegeps dont have them… well cegeps do have a month winter break…

Concerned U3
6 years ago

as someone who has a chronic pain disorder, a learning disability, and diabetes… McGill kills my health and there is no way i can really control all of these things by Olivers advice.. that is just not possible. We have a large population at McGill of students with learning disabilities, health problems, and other things that effect the students ability to be healthy in such a setting. for me, my health would be greatly impacted positively by a break… McGill has shown disregard of my documented health conditions and because of this I have had to defer numerous exams because… Read more »

Claire Brown
6 years ago

University of Toronto has a 12 week semester. That would solve it for McGill. There would be lots of time for a fall break. Sometimes less is more!

Paul Frazer
6 years ago

I think that once again McGill has shown a lack of imagination, leadership and care for the students who after all are its clients and very much the reason that the institution continues to exist. I do not accept the excuses put forward; it appears that the examination of the question of a fall break was halted as soon as McGill found a ready excuse to do so. As an alum and a donor I am very disappointed that McGill’s leadership is so weak on this and other matters that pertain to the well-being of students.The students themselves can provide… Read more »