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Carleton culture operates like an investment bank

You’re always on. You’re delivering for several clients on tight deadlines, all at the same time. Your work output comes before all else. You’re rewarded for your capacity to match high quality with high volume at a superhuman pace. If you slip up, don’t expect to catch up. Does this sound to you like Wall Street, Carleton culture, or both?

Whether or not we are willing to admit it, Carleton’s work culture is not that different from that of an investment bank. We’re just a bank of academics, not financiers. We produce scholarship, not mergers and collateralized debt obligations. For students, professors and group project partners are our clients. For faculty, students are clients and administrators are managers. For college staff, everyone is the client. Here at Carleton College, we deliver for our clients.

If an investment bank is closed on a holiday, and policies are put into place to limit the amount of weekend time junior bankers spend in the office, does this necessarily mean that people at the bank are not working, especially in the case of a live deal? No.

 

Much like investment banking, Carleton has unwritten rules and expectations about work. Before the first day of classes, some professors assign work during periods that would otherwise be considered academic breaks. And during academic breaks, you can bet that professors are still working on grading from the last term and syllabi preparation for the next term. In the thick of the academic term, the Libe closes at 1 a.m. But does this really mean anything?

In an environment in which Friday and Saturday deadlines are standard practice; where several-hundred-page books are assigned between class sessions; where a single course might entail two midterms, a final, several papers and projects, and weekly homeworks and quizzes, all in the span of ten weeks; and where courses attempt to sandwich a semester’s worth of content into a time frame that is wholly incomparable to that of a semester, one begins to wonder: are we principally concerned with learning, or with output?

The greatest irony about our predominantly left-leaning, highly academic campus in a rural location is that it functions at a clip that is no different than that of seemingly opposite environments, particularly those which we scrutinize both inside and outside the classroom. What would actually happen if we missed a full day of classes? What would happen if we took a collective pause? Would half the senior class risk passing comps? Would the Integrated Science Facility collapse?

I have been trying to crystallize what it is about Carleton culture that is, in my view, so frustrating, ironic, interesting, and worth talking about as a community. And I think it’s our unbridled dedication to intense pace and intense rigor. It’s almost as if we can’t have one without the other.

If we slowed down, whether for a day or for the whole term, would we really be less rigorous? Would assignments be any less thought-provoking, and office hours any less conducive to substantive conversation? It’s past time that we consider whether our obsession with being both highly rigorous and extremely fast-paced is not only unhealthy, but might actually lend itself to a culture that is not nearly as hospitable to learning as we might hope, given our mission as a leading liberal arts college.

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