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.