Cheyla Lachowsky (2L)
Perhaps like me you came back to class on the Tuesday just after Remembrance Day and felt something was off. The parking lot was just a little bit emptier. Your classes felt a little bit longer. Our isolated little law building was an island of activity in a mostly quiet campus. This was probably because the majority of undergraduate students at the University of Alberta had a fall reading week, and therefore no classes, from November 13th to 16th. The university introduced a fall reading week in 2015 in part to improve students’ mental health. Us law students are exempt from such a break. Initially, I grumbled to my husband about the faculty not caring about the mental health and stress levels of law students (five exams in five days sound familiar to anyone?). Then I came to the conclusion that fall reading week is a relatively new thing and it probably just hadn’t been adopted by the Faculty of Law yet because of apathy and administrative hurdles. Finally, I decided to email Vice Dean Yahya to see why I, a stressed-out law student, didn’t get my extra week off in the fall semester.
I’m not sure what I expected him to say. Probably something that confirmed my earlier suspicions. What I did not expect, was a response within 10 minutes inviting me to drop by his office for him to explain in person. I was a little thrown off (mostly because I am lazy and was hoping to just copy and paste his answers into this article) but I appreciated that he was willing to take time out of his busy day of doing vice dean things just to talk to me about wanting more vacation time to procrastinate.
During our meeting, Vice Dean Yahya explained that when the rest of the university first implemented the fall reading week the Faculty of Law consulted with the students and LSA to see if one should be brought in for us too. Ultimately, no one wanted one. This was for a couple reasons. One reason being that there are a certain number of class days that we have to have. If there was a fall reading week we would have to make up those days either at the beginning of the year or at the end. If we started the extra few days early, we would risk starting classes in August. Not only would this be difficult for students who would have to sign leases starting in August instead of September, Vice Dean Yahya expressed concern for the availability of 1L Orientation speakers and sessional professors. He explained that our sessional instructors get paid very little for their time and most of them do it as a way to give back to the Faculty of Law rather than for the compensation (it’s worth noting that their compensation rate was raised by about $100/semester this year to avoid paying them less than the new minimum wage). He didn’t want to risk students losing them as instructors if they couldn’t start at the end of August instead of after Labour Day. Another downfall to starting earlier is that many students have summer jobs and losing out on that extra bit of income or experience is a significant issue for them.
The other option would be to end the semester a little later in December. You’ll notice that most undergraduate students start their semester a day earlier than us but end a few days later than us. Vice Dean Yahya said that while undergraduate students can use reading week to study for their midterms, we don’t normally have mid semester exams. Instead, many of our classes have final exams which are worth as much as 100% of our grade. Because their classes go up until Friday, December 7th, undergraduate students could write an exam on the following Monday and only have the weekend to study. A law student with a final exam on the same Monday has an extra three days to study. In the past, law students have expressed that they prefer having the extra break before their final exams to study rather than a break in the middle of the semester. Especially since so much of their grade often depends on their final exams.
Vice Dean Yahya gave a few smaller reasons as to why a fall reading week doesn’t really make sense for the Faculty of Law. He also gave the history as to why we have one in February. He made it very clear that if law students want a fall reading week that the Faculty is open to implementing one. It would have to be carefully thought through because it is a big decision that affects many students in the future. After his reasoning, I can clearly see why so many of the student groups who have proposed a fall reading week in the past ultimately decided it was a bad idea.
As interesting as his explanations were, the biggest take away I had from this meeting was the level of concern he had for students. He started the meeting concerned that students were stressed and were dissatisfied about a lack of reading week. He clarified that our lack of fall reading week was because of student well-being and success. He even mentioned that by giving my 1L class five exams in five days the faculty was trying to maximize the amount of holiday vacation we would get since he knows we need that time to see our families and de-stress. It wasn’t an arbitrary decision with no thought toward student well-being. He ended the meeting by asking me how school was going and giving me advice. He reassured me about my career goals and the decisions I was making.
What I initially intended to be a few-sentence emailed response from the Vice Dean ended up being a conversation spanning almost an hour. I was floored by the time he was willing to take out of his day to answer my questions and talk to me. I think when things start to get tough and we start to get stressed, the faculty becomes an easy scapegoat. We forget that the vast majority of instructors want us to succeed. They care about us and how we are doing. Keep this in mind as the end of the semester deadlines and exams approach. If you are struggling, reach out. No one wants to see you struggle alone.