If you are or were in a teaching profession, you might be familiar with the concept of the syllabus creep, or syllabus bloat.
For those unfamiliar with it, a syllabus is the document that tells you what you can expect in the college or technical course you are taking. “Syllabus creep” or syllabus bloat is the term teachers and professors use to describe the tendency of a syllabus to get longer over time because you might feel like you have to address problems from previous semesters. It’s the desire to cut down on fifty students (no really, fifty) asking you the same question.
A couple of years ago when I started teaching a sociology course at ASU, I looked at the syllabus of a colleague who taught the same course. I thought it looked huge, but I also quickly realized the syllabus was the result of years of issues popping up in his class. I adopted his course policies wholesale.
Except for one major difference. One recent figure I saw is that profs spend around 28% of their time answering emails. A lot of those emails are things that are answered somewhere in the syllabus or the course material. I toyed around with an idea from a professor at Salem College who would only respond to emails from students requesting an in-person conversation. But I got cold feet on something so drastic, even if the reported results of that policy were amazing. Instead, I told my students that if they emailed me after 5pm, they should not expect a response before 9am the next business day. There was no complicated decision tree for when to email me; just an expectation about when students could and could not expect a response from me.
I don’t have enough information to tell if it changed my students’ habits, but it did change mine. It felt like I had given myself permission to be with my family even if I had seen the email from a student. I had given myself permission to leave my phone and my laptop in another room.
Folks who work in a number of fields can tell us that technology has changed our work habits. As a culture, we are already working the jobs that years ago, two or three other people would have been hired to do. One university official at ASU I know absorbed the work of three people in his department when they left their jobs. Email and smartphones and other technologies further blur the lines between time at work and time at home. And even if some of us are able to stave off the personal push to “sacrifice in the name of accomplishing the goal” or coworkers may not, and so they may resent our “tuning-out” or we risk the reputation of one who is “uncommitted.”
As Rabbi Arthur Waskow puts it, “Most Americans today work longer, harder, and more according to someone else’s schedule than they did 30 years ago. We have less time to raise our children, share neighborhood concerns, or develop our spiritual life…this life situation crosses what we usually see as class lines: single mothers who are working at minimum wages for fast food chains and holding on by their fingernails to a second job to make ends meet feel desperately overworked; and so do wealthy brain surgeons.”
Further, in this culture of convenience in which we can order something from Amazon and have it at my door within two hours, we do not often think of what it takes other human beings in order to make that happen. I think about that when I’m ordering an Uber or a Lyft at 3 in the morning to get to the airport, and I talk to the driver about his kids at home, asleep—the the other job he works. I think about it when the most persistently difficult part of my job as a campus chaplain seems to be getting more than seven students in a room at the same time. Often, it is not an issue of willingness on their part; it’s an issue of time and aligning schedules as they go between their two to three jobs each, in addition to their course schedule, ongoing resume-building projects, unpaid internships, and appointments to sell their plasma for rent money.
And while news outlets are telling us that millennials are killing off industries by the dozens—mostly because they have less purchasing power due to stagnant wages—or when it is bemoaned that they are not willing to work beyond what they are getting paid for to signal their “commitment”—when it’s more accurate to say that they are not willing to be exploited by companies with no reciprocal notion of loyalty, I’m reminding them that I’ve never heard a person near death say that they wish they had taken more hours away from their family for work.
Welcome to the new realities of campus ministry.
Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” I want to go back to the reading from Deuteronomy, and I want to leave us with two lines of consideration: the first is a social pondering, and the second will be a question about one’s personal practice of Sabbath.
So, let’s go back to our first reading. there is something quite important to notice here:
“You shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
This is known as the third of the ten commandments, and what is so fascinating is that here it appears to be a hinge between the commandments that deal with our relationship to God and our relationship to others. In essence, God is saying that because the Israelites knew the experience of slavery in Egypt, the working according to someone else’s schedule and the inability of worship according to God, God will not allow the Israelites to treat others that way. Everyone gets the Sabbath off. The Israelites could not even require of their own slaves or the immigrants among them to keep commerce going in their stead, hence closing off the possibility of an exploitative work practice. In other words, the Sabbath is not simply to make the worship of God possible; it’s a regulation of our treatment of others.
We now live in a society that, due to our multiculturalism, does not take a common time of breath or rest. In the age of 24 hour stores, a gig economy where folks have to hustle for a living, a sleepless internet and marketplace, and parental anxiety over making sure their kids stay on track for free college through over-programming their lives, we are sorely lacking in a time to collectively take a pause. While I’m not a fan of enforcing religious laws over a populace that may believe differently, it’s worth recognizing that we’re missing something that once existed to our benefit. And I wonder what the implications would be on considering how a faith community, willing to live simply one day a week, would make a difference on the work and life of others. What if we were as committed to our neighbor’s time of rest as we were to sating our desire for convenience?
Now, I’m not interested in telling you how to rest—that you need a day every week that you do nothing. As much as I’d find that to be an ideal for everyone, I need to admit that I’ve been particularly bad about that. But I want to ask you to consider something. I’ve noticed that this frenetic pace of modern life and a general sense of unhappiness with the over-work we experience has a positively toxic side effect. We tend to feel alienated from—and joyless in—our work. As a result of that, many of the ways we take off our time is numbing rather than resting. There is a difference between that which numbs us from our life and that which rejuvenates us. How have you seen that difference? Sabbath is not simply time off to recuperate so that we may increase our value as an economic producer. So, how do you tell the difference between what is deadening you from what gives you life?
Recognizing that difference and moving toward the life-giving will move you closer to the orbit of God. Recognizing the difference may help you drop the habits that keep you in a unrestful stasis—perhaps dropping the habits that leave you feeling guilty afterward. May your discernment of your rest this summer be life-giving—and may you guard your life-giving leisure.
Preacher: Robert Berra