Crunch-time culture is rampant throughout Oberlin, but the three-semester plan and the lack of breaks and administrative support, combined with still rigorous class schedules, has worsened Oberlin’s toxic culture around work. The only way to combat this inevitable challenge is through a mix of self-care and leniency from those in power, such as bosses and professors.
Crunch-time culture is highly toxic and, unfortunately, prevalent throughout the world, both before and during the pandemic. Crunch-time culture is when people work relentlessly toward some goal — completing a class or job task, for instance — and are forced to work extended hours close to a deadline without a break. At its worst, partaking in crunch-time for consecutive periods of time results in worsening burnout, declining mental health, and tasks being pushed back or completed without quality control. The very nature of the culture involves ignoring the basic human need for self-care in the workplace.
This pressure to always succeed without pause only gets heightened for me as a Black, low-income, first-generation student. For instance, when I took Organismal Biology during my first year, I had difficulty keeping up with the material, and I was constantly reading material I didn’t fully understand. Despite my far below-average test grades in the course and debilitating mental health issues that year, I still tried and failed to conform to the crunch-time culture. After failing the first test, I began attending more Oberlin Workshop and Learning Sessions, studying with friends, working with a tutor, and attending office hours at least once a week. The sessions were helpful to a degree, but as a struggling student trying their hardest, I didn’t need advice to “keep reading the textbook and studying” without considering my past and current identities, or the work that I do to try and not fail.
I have come to accept that I will always feel stressed and anxious at some level. While essential resources like antidepressants and therapy are helpful, I need them to simply exist on or off Oberlin’s campus without significant strain on my body and mind. In addition, I need empathy and reassurance that I am not doing something wrong, which is something I didn’t receive in my biology course. This potential shift in behavior would have helped boost my performance in that course and improved my mental health. In the end, despite my best efforts, I ended up failing the class anyway. The crunch-time culture of Oberlin sucked the life out of me that year, and receiving little to no reward for my work was not encouraging either. Although this is merely my experience, I feel it applies to Oberlin in general, and it is only heightened during the pandemic semesters. Oberlin professors can and should be more receptive to students’ needs and mental health, so that other students don’t suffer as I did my first year.
After the College sent students home in March 2020, this sort of culture only worsened. For example, I frequently experienced burnout and grinding at the last minute to accomplish tasks while on Student Senate. From our efforts to spread the word about the 2020 election and encourage students to vote on the Bylaws Referendum, Senate was almost always a stressful environment where crunch-time culture became a requirement because of the lack of administrative support. During the height of our struggle to get to the voter threshold for the Referendum, I had tremors and trouble staying asleep due to anxiety for days. These spasms, combined with only being allowed to log a mere 10 hours per week for a tumultuous and necessary job at the school, are just a handful of the reasons why I’m no longer on Student Senate.
The biggest problems besides those health issues were administrators not actively respecting Senators and hearing out their ideas, and administrators having a million responsibilities that usually required crunch-time to complete. We could have been far more productive during my time on Senate if Senators had a chance to breathe for more than the school’s measly two days off last semester. Without consistent support from the administration, we were forced to buckle down and do most of this work ourselves while short-staffed and burned out. Scenarios like these led to four senators quitting during the spring semester, and I even came close to dropping out early while dealing with the infamous lost items debacle. Administrators should have been responsive to emails and other communications, so we could have done more to make their lives and students’ lives easier. This would have lessened the impact of crunch-time culture on Senators.
Even after leaving that job, I cannot escape this pesky part of life at Oberlin College. I’ve been working as the sole Activism Editor for the Review’s Special Issue on Racial Justice for months now. While this has easily been my favorite job that I’ve had on campus, it has been tainted by Oberlin’s crunch culture too. Finding article topics and writers, editing and amending the pieces, and adjusting to life working for a paper is exhilarating yet exhausting. The burnout is made worse by the fact that, due to miscommunication between offices, I have yet to be paid for my work.
While this piece focuses on my experiences at Oberlin, the worst aspects of crunch-time culture impact most schools and workplaces worldwide and will not disappear anytime soon. With this reality in mind, we instead need to work with a constant awareness of it. The best responses to this dynamic I’ve seen were from individual professors who recognized how strenuous and unrealistic crunch-time and the three-semester plan are. Some have pushed back or canceled assignments, while others have even implemented class break days that the College doesn’t provide in their schedule. I only encourage other people in power to do the same or to take a moment to breathe, if you have the privilege and time.