It’s time for my very first in-person midterm, a COS 126 written exam in McCosh 50, and all I can think about is the fact that I forgot to put the filter in my mask that morning.
Given that I’m vaccinated for COVID-19, 97% of this campus is also vaccinated, and I am fortunately not immuno-compromised, I usually wouldn’t be so concerned about my missing mask filter. After all, I eat maskless in the dining hall three times a day, I walk around outside unmasked, and every time I go to Frist—which is at least five days a week—I encounter at least ten maskless individuals talking, laughing, or even coughing. It does not worry me.
But I wasn’t worried about COVID as I sat scribbling out my Honor Code pledge. I was worried about the Princeton Plague, which, despite its macabre and alliterative name, is probably just a bad cold (or five). Still, no one wants a cold, especially not at the advent of midterm season, and I was pretty sure I was in a room with at least fifty contagious cold-carriers.
(This was also the first exam I’ve ever taken with a soundtrack, unless you count AP Music Theory. McCosh 50 practically reverberated with the sounds of coughing, sneezing, and the disgusting air-sucking sound one makes when trying not to cough or sneeze.)
The contagious environment of the first COS 126 midterm—and the second midterm, a week later—is emblematic of two larger issues on this campus: firstly, our disregard for the health of others, and secondly, the disregard for our own individual health.
We’ve all done it before—shown up to class with clogged sinuses or a rusty throat, surreptitiously wiped a drippy nose in the back of a seminar, snuck a bag of cough drops into a lecture hall. The inability to slow down, ask for help, or acknowledge when we’re struggling is a constant issue for many Princeton students, but even those of us—say, me—who will raise our hands in class to ask what’s probably a dumb question, or email the professor when we think we need extra help with an assignment, have all been guilty of ignoring our health for the sake of our academics at one time or another. Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking you have never done this. Really? You’ve never showed up to class on less than six hours of sleep? You’ve never skipped or delayed a meal to finish an assignment? You’ve never skipped exercise you knew you needed because you wanted to study for a test? All of these things would be characterized as the prioritization of academics over health. I still don’t know if I’m convinced that the priority should be health, not academics, 100% of the time, but let’s at least strive for a solid 80%. Most of us are probably nowhere near there.
But what’s the motivation behind this prioritization? Probably a whole host of concerns: letting down professors, or worse, parents; falling behind in class; not keeping up that GPA; showing weakness in front of our classmates; even just straight-up denial that we’re not invincible. Commitment to an unrealized career. Existential fears. Not knowing what the hell else to do—why are we at Princeton, anyway, if not to “do well”?
These are all profoundly valid motivations. But they are often selfish. We don’t know if the friend sitting across from us in the dining hall would rather not get a cough in the face. We don’t know if our Writing Center Fellow is immuno-compromised. We don’t know if the janitor who has to wipe invisible spittle flecks off the desks is going home to a 90-year-old mother.
Not only are we compromising and endangering our own health and education by not prioritizing our health in the short-term, but we’re compromising and endangering the health and education of everyone around us.
That said, it’s not all on us. No one can control the expectations put upon them by parents, for instance, but if parents knew that one missed class due to a contagious cold wouldn’t jeopardize their child’s future, then perhaps the more stringent of them would relax their expectations. If professors felt empowered—or, better, obligated—to record classes for ill students, extend deadlines for the earnest but chronically busy and sleep-deprived, or lighten the sometimes unnecessarily immense workloads with the express suggestion to go outside and get some fresh air, then maybe fewer students would fear prioritizing their health over their academics. But there seems to be the assumption in many departments that if it’s not COVID, then it’s not an excuse, or maybe there’s the fear that students will take advantage of the system. But there will always be students who take advantage of the system, and it will only be to their own detriment. The student who cheats on the math homework is probably not going to last long at a real job with real math and no answer keys on the internet. The student who would skip class with an illness excuse is not likely to suddenly start going to class, let alone paying attention, if they don’t get to offer an illness excuse.
To reiterate: this is not just about professors being nice. This is about professors being not only empowered to make such decisions but obligated to do so. Princeton’s administration has that power. Last year, for instance, the administration gave departments the ability to extend the deadline for Junior Papers due to student mental health struggles and the challenge of the online environment. Some departments extended the deadline. Some departments extended the deadline after students sent emails. Some departments did not extend the deadline even for individual students who were evidently struggling. As a result, although some students benefited from the administration’s mandate, the benefits were not at all equal.
It seems unreasonable to me that Princeton students should be unequally treated in matters of mental health and academic opportunity. This is especially true considering that the students who would most benefit from departmental leniency, or perhaps more accurately, humanity, are the students who are already at a disadvantage. For instance, students with family obligations, marginalized backgrounds, mental and/or physical health conditions, disabilities, etc.
To my fellow students: the mask goes over the nose. For the love of God, cover your mouth when you sneeze. Wash your damn hands, you’re not five years old. I know you’re not stupid; most of you are a helluva lot smarter than me. But that’s part of the problem—you’re so focused on being smart, getting smart, and making sure your smartness is recognized by the people who matter, that sometimes you don’t make such smart decisions. Myself included. But we can still commit to doing better.
To professors: when you can, be kind to students. Assume we’re trying our best, and if we’re not, that’s only hurting us. Perhaps you do not want to come across as an “easy” professor. However, I believe the “ease” (or lack thereof) of your course should be substantive—i.e., rooted in the course material. A truly challenging course will still be challenging if students are permitted sick days and work extensions for mental health. Moreover, if professors communicate and all implement the same policies, then not only will students be on a more equal playing field across classes, but the standard of work will be higher (trust me, we write better essays when we aren’t sick) and you will not look any more or less of a “pushover” in comparison to other professors, because you’re all doing the same thing.
To the administration: remind the professors that we’re not really super-genius robots, at least not most of us. Perhaps you are trying to preserve a culture of rigor, pushing through obstacles, and striving under pressure. These are all admirable goals, but I believe they are of lower priority than the mental and physical wellbeing of students, because, quite simply, a student struggling is not likely to develop a more rigorous work ethic until they are no longer struggling. Remind yourselves that we students have health and sanity, however many pedestals Ivy League students are placed upon, and some of us might lose those that health and sanity now or down the line, profoundly precious as they are, if we chronically neglect them. Scheduling four-hour nature walks the weekend in between midterms does nothing to lessen our workloads. Telling us to drink hot tea does not make us stop going to class when we are contagiously ill. Reminding us to sleep does not make the exam we’re staying up late to study for go away. However, expanding McCosh appointment hours so that students can actually receive the medical care they need, emphatically encouraging students to stay home when sick, and requiring professors to accommodate students dealing with health issues, COVID or not, would go a long way toward healing this campus’s culture of academics over health.
As students, we are not empowered to wholly change this culture; we do not make the rules that control our academic experiences, treatment by professors, and the transcripts that will shape our futures. Nevertheless, we can still speak up on behalf of the whole campus community, and, if you as the reader do care about the campus community, I encourage you to speak up as well.
Like all illnesses, both bodily and social, treating the symptoms is ultimately useless. We can all do better.
(Let’s hope those two COS 126 midterm exams went well, though—dammit, I braved the Princeton Plague for them.)