(Emory Wheel/Jay Jones)

Considering the ongoing pandemic, Emory University’s decision to cancel spring break was a good one. What the University calls an alternative, though, are three supposed rest days throughout the semester, where professors are encouraged (though not required) to cancel synchronous class. But are these days truly restful?

No. But we need to understand why these rest days are an inadequate response to our exhaustion.

As Rachel Broun (23C) argued in an op-ed, I believe that these rest days are performative gestures instituted to: prevent an outcry at the lack of care for student wellbeing; enable us to do more work in the long run; force us to simultaneously survive a global pandemic and the exploitative conditions of the university.

None of these reasons center rest.

Even during this year-long pandemic, the University expects us to complete increasing amounts of work with increasing efficiency. Online education exacerbates the harm of academic competition, making our current learning situation even more isolating. Thanks to the flexibility of online academic labor, universities operate on “flexitime:” rather than a strict 9-to-5 schedule, our work is scattered over 24 hours a day.

Going online increased Emory’s insistence on using flexitime to get what is considered enough done. The push to keep a supposedly normal pace in an abnormal world is why we are so exhausted and why rest days are not restful. It is not hard to see that flexitime means a non-stop work schedule, forcing us to continue “succeeding” at a “normal” rate. We don’t clock out when Zoom class ends. Even on rest days, there is no pause on the pressures, expectations and deadlines of school. 

Universities are not neutral vehicles for knowledge delivery. Even non-profit universities like Emory operate as capitalist institutions focused on making money. Our academic bosses (i.e. college and university administration) prioritize revenue and prestige at the expense of the mental, physical, and material well-being of students and employees while training us to accept and supposedly excel under these harsh, exploitative conditions. In short, Emory puts profit over people. 

Under academic capitalism, universities like Emory treat higher education policy as a kind of corporate economic policy, forcing students and employees to increasingly “expend their human capital stocks in competitive environments.” As students, we are commodified through requirements to accumulate credits as grades, attendance and diplomas; we are specks of capital meant to be productive and profitable. 

Despite exhaustion and exploitation, the University seems to always connect itself to “self-development, societal improvement, the fulfillment of the promise of citizenship, [and] the propertied acquisition of privilege.” But no matter how rose-tinted their description of the so-called student experience, there is no real rest within this system. 

In this era of asynchronous assignments, recorded lectures and 24/7 flexitime, our education is taking an even greater toll on our mental and physical health. The rest days provide the feeling of rest without allowing deviation from the expected and enforced work schedule. Although we do not have to attend a Zoom class, the day does not become entirely ours and work must still be done. But why push against rest days when they help us get good grades, remain at Emory and maintain productivity to supposedly succeed? How do we resist this exercise of power when “the easiest way to preserve your health is to excel at capitalist competition?”

Rest days aren’t restful when they sustain our participation in this unsustainable system. It is not a transformative rejection of the exploitive demand for productivity but is instead part of the broader problems of capitalism and the co-optation of rest. Exhaustion is not a regrettable fault to be treated by a prescriptive self-care check-list so we can get back to work immediately. The need to rest is human, and our constant exhaustion is proof that these capitalist academic standards are inhumane. 

I do not have all the answers as to how we can transform our educational experience. No single individual does. But it is clear that rest is not possible in a system that thrives on exploitation. We cannot contain rest to a day (or three). We cannot cure our exhaustion with rest days or self-care checklists because care must be built into our lives and institutions. We need transformative anti-capitalist care, and the rest day falls far short.

Jay Jones (22Ox, 24C) is from Tallahassee, Florida.