by Sinead Hunt
If you’re anything like me, these past few weeks have been characterized by an unrelenting barrage of exams, papers and deadlines, with no discernable finish line in the foreseeable future. Your celebration over the completion of one assignment is almost certain to be overshadowed by yet another looming deadline, as this semester’s midterm season drags on. If you have ever felt overwhelmed by school work, internships, and the overall pressure to succeed, then you too have felt the effect of Barnard/Columbia’s toxic “stress culture.”
In light of recent events, including an ill-conceived “time management calculator” recently circulated within the Columbia Buy Sell Memes page, you would have to be living under a rock to have never heard the term “stress culture.” As the term has become firmly ingrained in the lexicon of Barnard/Columbia students, there have been numerous attempts by the administration to deal with this insidious pandemic. From limiting the number of credits students can take to expanding access to mental health services, members of the community, including students, faculty and administrators are all struggling to discover a panacea for stress culture.z
No place better embodies Columbia’s stress culture than Butler Library. On Sunday nights, Butler’s atmosphere is perfectly dismal, the intimidating silence punctuated only by the furious clacking of student’s typing. While Butler’s formidable presence is expected, however, even the social spaces on campus have been co-opted as oppressively silent study spaces.
Who should be held accountable for this school’s pernicious stress culture? While I acquiesce that there are many things the administration could be doing to mitigate stress culture, it is equally important to consider what we as students could be doing right now to foster a healthier, less stressful environment.
After my first semester at college, I was struck by the story of an evolutionary biologist by the name of William Muir. In an effort to better understand the relationship between competition and productivity, Muir set out to measure the productivity of chickens. He separated his hens into two distinct groups, the first of which being a collection of simply “average” chickens. The second group was a carefully selected cross-section of the most productive chickens, also known as “super chickens.” Each generation, Muir selected only the best egg-layers to place into this elite flock. After six generations, Muir examined the egg production of both groups.
we are all super chickens, willing to do whatever it takes to maximize our own productivity
The results of Muir’s experiment were shocking. If egg-laying is a heritable trait, then simple evolutionary biology dictates that the latter of the two flocks, the group of “super chickens,” should have been more productive than their average counterparts. However, contrary to expectation, it was the average flock that thrived, increasing egg production by 160%. And what about the super chickens?
They pecked one another to death.
Muir found that the individually productive chickens had achieved their success at the expense of their neighbors, suppressing their peers’ egg-laying so as to maximize their own. The intense competition among these super chickens, rather than increasing productivity, actually led to the demise of their flock.
The results of this study resonated with me on a personal level. From the moment I arrived on campus, I knew that the vast majority of my classmates had been at the top of their class in high school, and came to college with one simple objective: to succeed. In other words, we are all super chickens, willing to do whatever it takes to maximize our own productivity, even if it comes at the expense of our neighbors. At this point, I could regale you with countless stories of times where my classmates and even my friends reified this toxic ethos of competition through both words and actions. From my best friend who only agreed to share her notes with me “because the class isn’t curved,” to the classmates who made me feel ashamed of a 96, stress culture is ultimately perpetuated by us, the students. While the administration certainly needs to make a concerted effort to address this culture of competition, we, the students, too must critically examine our inordinate emphasis on success. As long as we normalize unhealthy practices in the name of academic success, we are complicit in the further perpetuation of an unhealthy stress culture that is bad for all members of our community.