Does anyone like an 8:30 class?

Yes, early birds love them. But for everyone else, those a.m. classes are a test of endurance and skill.
Writer: 
March 6, 2017

It’s really hard to tell if you’re sleepy or confused,” Genevieve Lipp ’10, M.S. ’13, Ph.D. ’14 says to her EGR 244: “Dynamics” class at 9:07 a.m. on a Friday in mid-January. While her comment draws a few nervous laughs, it’s not an unfair claim. She’s outlining the polar frame for an audience of almost forty sophomores—the whiteboard replete with derivatives, trigonometric functions, and derivatives of trigonometric functions—and if the students are processing the material, well, then it’s a pretty subtle processing.

Lipp, now an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, understands the predicament she faces teaching in this 8:30 a.m. timeslot. As a first-year, she took a linear algebra class during the same semester she was tenting for basketball tickets. Soon, she stopped going to class; soon thereafter, she scored a 26 on the first exam. The experience taught her two key qualities for a successful class: Students need to feel the class is worthwhile, and students need to be engaged. “These two ideas weigh more heavily on an 8:30 a.m. class because it’s harder to make yourself get there, and it’s harder to stay awake once you’re there,” she says. “An instructor should encourage active learning the same as she would at any time of day, but the stakes are higher for an early class.”

So, Lipp breaks students into groups at the start of each session, transforming the room from a staid lecture into a communal problem-solving seminar. She paces up and down the middle walkway of the banked hall, looking for struggling students to almost preemptively answer their questions, trying—as does the room’s sharp wood paneling—to brighten things up inside the Teer Building. One glance out the window at the dark-gray sky outside, or a look around at the bleary-eyed students, underscores the lack of a lively environment. “There are some mornings where…I end up trying to write,” says Gustavo Andraje, a blue-hoodied sophomore in Lipp’s class who also is tenting this semester, “and I look at my paper, and it’s just a bunch of scribbles because I’ve been dozing off.”

At 8:30, or 9, or even 9:30 a.m., staying awake, let alone being alert, is an uphill battle for students. Ceaseless activities— classes, homework, paid work, extracurriculars—overflow their daily schedules; finding seven to nine hours for adequate nightly sleep becomes a Herculean task. Plus, the inherent social aspects of college don’t make it easy to resist procrastination impulses. “It’s harder to go to bed when you live with friends. Especially freshman year, when you get to know your hallmates, there’s a common room—people stay up there to talk, to do homework together—you’re probably not gonna go to sleep unless you’re really, really tired,” Andraje says. “In high school, I think the latest I’d go to sleep was one. I’d try to be in bed by midnight. But now here, I don’t think I’ve been asleep by midnight yet.”

The struggle isn’t universal; for some, this timeslot is fine, even preferred. “My friends think I’m crazy. They just don’t understand why this would ever be a thing that you’d want to do,” says Shreya Shankar, a sophomore in the same “Dynamics” class, of her preference for early-morning classes. (Her secret to staying alert? Honey lattes from Joe Van Gogh café.) But mostly, early-morning class presents myriad problems for students. The classes force the day to start earlier without a guarantee it will end at a reasonable hour; they can create uneven daily schedules where students have to wake up early two or three times each week, which is worse than five times; and they can become, commonly, sacrificed in the hunt for more hours in the day. As Kevin Gehsmann, a sophomore in the 10:05 a.m. session of “Dynamics," explains bluntly, “You’re much more likely to miss the 8:30 class than any other class, so you’re gonna do worse” in the early-morning session.

Yet, these classes exist; they’re logistically impossible to completely excise. And eventually, after the harrowing registration process, they get filled. Duke’s early-morning contingent, students and instructors alike, is an alloy of the undeterred and the unlucky, the naïve and the nascent. They may be undesirable, but the classes cause everyone involved to grapple with a somewhat philosophical question: How does one deal with something unpleasant but necessary, knowing that life inevitably promises similar hurdles in the future?

Nominally, college kids do have it easier these days in the early-to-rise sense. Dating back to the 1940s, Duke has begun school days at 8 a.m. (before that: 8:30 a.m.). While the ’70s and ’80s provided a brief flirtation with 9 a.m. starts, by 1993 the 8 a.m. class was back in style, and the schedule was standardized across all days to end at 7 p.m. Often these early course meetings were unavoidable: The required first-year writing course, which now is known as “Writing 101” and features classes sprinkled throughout the day, used to schedule all of its sections in the first period.

With the 2005 school year, Duke shifted to the current schedule of an 8:30 a.m. start, with the erroneous headline “Duke cuts 8 a.m. classes to help students get more sleep” attached to the Associated Press story. The adjustment was related more to the fact that the course schedule had become too cluttered: Students were increasingly gravitating to classes between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays and were forced to make tough tradeoffs in their course scheduling.

The administration, in response, spread out the curriculum. Under the current Course Schedule Policy, last revised five years ago, only half of a department’s undergraduate level courses can fall between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., which the university registrar refers to as “prime time.” The academic day now extends further into the evening, with the last period starting at 7:30 p.m.; the morning’s start shifted a half hour later to help accommodate the greater number of students that would be enrolled in first-period courses.

Despite these efforts, it goes without saying that not all of these periods are equally popular: Based on the 197-page course catalogue detailing the 2017 spring semester, first-period classes, starting at either 8:30 a.m. or 8:45 a.m., are offered 40 percent less frequently than second-period classes (starting at 10:05 a.m. and 10:20 a.m.). The scheduling isn’t an inefficiency; in short, the disparity is due to a lack of demand. Perhaps domestic students, coming from a high-school system in which six out of seven kids will be at their desks before 8:30 a.m., are lashing back against four more years in such an imposing environment.

What’s clear is that Duke, before 8:30 a.m., is far from its typically bubbly campus. On the walkways of Abele Quad, lone students shuffle about, either hauling sleeping bags (tenters) or boasting Duke-emblazoned backpacks (most are athletes with early-morning practices). Any chatter stems from suited administrators ambling to the Allen Building. The “natural” elements of Duke’s campus—landscaping vehicles on the main quad, trucks beeping backward below the Bryan Center Plaza—create an unfettered soundscape.

While Duke students’ penchant for night life is well-established, the morning life has not found its audience.

Inside the Physics Building, Christopher Roy, associate professor of chemistry, is trying just to make his audience chuckle. Roy, who sounds like Louis C.K. with a chest cold, discusses phenomena like “supercritical fluids” and “chelating amines” in his CHEM 410: “Inorganic Chemistry” course; at 8:30 a.m., it’s important to muster enthusiasm. So he refers to Breaking Bad’s suspension of disbelief regarding hydrogen fluoride and makes corny dad jokes about a kind of super acid that, once it's in contact with a certain chemical, peels apart to reveal an “S” on its chest. No one laughs, until one student does at the glaring absence of laughter, and then it becomes pretty funny for everyone.

The willingness to take a swing and a miss at a joke, though, is intentional. “If you don’t inject some humor, or something that really gets the class paying attention to you, it’s almost—I just don’t think it’s successful,” Roy says. “I always tell my students that if it doesn’t seem like I’m enjoying it, then there’s no way you’ll enjoy it.”

It helps that, as associate director of undergraduate studies in the department, he knows all of the seniors in the class well. “Inorganic Chemistry” is required for students getting a B.S. degree in chemistry, and given the stacking of courses inherent to the major, most students are spending their final semester at Duke waking up early twice a week to listen to Roy. It’s his duty to turn a learning ordeal into an opportunity.

“Because he’s the kind of person who cracks jokes every five minutes, at the very least we’re more willing to be awake and listening to him,” says Kelley White, a senior in the class. Her schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays runs from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and she is, not coincidentally, drinking an unprecedented amount of coffee this semester. “We don’t always laugh, partially because we don’t want to boost his ego about it, but also partially because it’s that early in the morning. But it definitely helps.”

Roy mentions that, for a major like chemistry, the coordination of classes goes far beyond the department itself. Pre-health students, as a number of his are, will undoubtedly also be occupied with biology, biochemistry, physics, math, sociology, and psychology. Naturally, a few courses have to be shifted outside of “prime time” to avoid key conflicts. “It’s not a battle. We’re all trying to work together. Everybody would like to have classes between 10 and 2,” he says. “[But] you can’t fit all your classes between 10 and 2.”

Still, Roy’s lecture almost apologetically acknowledges the fact that, yes, it is a little early for learning and teaching both. In fact, one similarity among early classes is the instructors’ willingness to acknowledge and empathize with the plight of their students, if only for a smidge more attention during the class. When Roy struggles with the projector, he facetiously asks, “Who am I? Where am I?” When Lipp reaches a good point in her lecture, she manufactures a five-minute break: “I don’t like sitting for seventy-five minutes first thing in the morning.” When Joe Nelson, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy who is teaching an 8:30 a.m. section of an introductory undergraduate logic course, misreads a truth table he wrote earlier, he says, “In my blanket disclaimer, I don’t usually get up this early.”

The corollary to students’ hesitancy to enroll in these classes is the faculty’s general reluctance to teach them, best shown by Nelson’s initial response to the thought of teaching in the morning, one that evoked Bartleby the Scrivener: “I would prefer not to.” While every department assigns courses and instructors differently, the trend is for tenure-track faculty to have first dibs on picking timeslots. Naturally, they gravitate toward classes outside the first period.

So these early slots fall to adjuncts, visitors, and grad students like Nelson, who ended up in this predicament partly because he missed the initial e-mail from the director of graduate studies. As someone who gets “a ton of work done between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.” and is in the midst of his thesis, it’ll be a major shift. “I basically drew the short straw; there was nothing the least bit unfair about it, but it’s just how it worked out,” he says. “But I had concerns about it, because it’s going to require me making a pretty significant shift in my study habits and my sleep habits, if I’m going to be, you know, awake and functioning at the appropriate hour.”

Perhaps the most telling faculty story comes from Astrid Giugni Ph.D. ’13, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Information Science + Studies (ISS). When pitching her first-year seminar, ISS 89S: “One Person, One Vote,” she requested the two-and-a-half-hour Monday morning timeslot strategically, hoping to avoid competition for students. “I think when I told Megan [Whitney, who helps assign courses for ISS] that, ‘Yeah, I’d like an 8:30,’ ” she says, “her response was ‘Yes! Somebody will take it!’ ”

From when I came to Duke, I always teach my courses at 8:30. It helps maximize my day.” That’s Mbaye Lo, associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, who’s teaching elementary Arabic at 8:30 a.m. this semester. His attitude is a forward-looking one; he feels that learning to cope in the early hours is, like time management or organization, an essential skill college should provide. He doesn’t know what they mean when people tell him, “I’m a morning person,” he says. “For me, by default, that’s how life is.”

Lo occasionally will make things easier for his students: When he covers abstract grammar concepts, for example, he’ll bring communal tea to class to make sure everyone’s awake. But he harbors a general fear that some Duke students don’t have the necessary drive to succeed post-graduation. “One of the challenges we face in advanced capitalistic societies is life becomes very good, and people lower expectations— that is the nature of human beings,” Lo says. He mentions how Duke graduates won’t merely be competing for jobs with domestic graduates but also with graduates from China, and India, and Senegal, where he went to school. And the fear of early classes, late classes, and Friday classes reflects a potentially fatal weakness—the lack of a work ethic. As Lo says, “The other day I talked to a student. I said, ‘What do you do on Friday?’ He said, ‘I sleep.’ ”

If you’re well-accustomed to early mornings like junior May Li—“I feel guilty if I get up really late”—then the shift from college to the labor force won’t be drastic. Otherwise, the essential question of “What happens when I have to wake up before 10 each day?” is a scary one for students. As Roy says, college is “one of the few times in your life when you have this much flux in your day, in your opportunity to start your day at noon.” And yet, for any of his “Inorganic Chemistry” students entering the traditional workforce or graduate school, the gravy train of late-morning wake-ups will end soon after they throw their ceremonial caps in the air in May.

“That terrifies me,” says Ahmed Noor, a senior in Roy’s class who is looking to go to medical school after a gap year. “I’ve heard that first year after medical school, your intern year, that year is supposed to be terrible and that’s where you have the most shifts where you’re working thirty-six hours nonstop. I’m trying to prepare myself for that reality eventually…. I’m very bad on five or six hours of sleep. But I feel like that’s something I’ll have to get used to.”

“I feel like it’s interesting I don’t know a lot of morning people at Duke,” says Noor’s classmate White, who admits to having missed one of Roy’s classes this semester because she wrongly set her alarm for a later hour. She mentions the graduate student in her chemistry lab who’s there from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., noting that few of her undergraduate peers can match that intensity. Still, she says, the early-morning stigma is overblown. “What I’ve noticed the fear of is 8 a.m.’s and then, kind of like my schedule, where you have class at 4 or 5 as well. If you can get your entire day done by 2 and start at 8 a.m., more people would be willing to do that than starting at 8 a.m. and having a peppering of classes with large breaks in between.”

For someone like Noor, who also cut out caffeine over winter break, the semester has been an exercise in persistence and, well, recalibrated expectations. “I made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t miss a single class this semester,” he says three weeks in, “and have not really kept up with that so far.” But he’s developing a few tools for navigating the early hours. “There’s taking good notes, and there’s taking notes just for the sake of taking notes,” he says. “One trick I’ll use is that sometimes I’ll just write down what’s being said, even if it’s not super important or something I don’t know already, just so I’m doing something physical that keeps me awake and keeps me focused. I am being intentional and paying attention to what they’re saying, even if I’m not processing it at a deep level, at least I’m there in some sense, mentally.

“There’s some days where I get lucky and I’m there mentally, but most days I have to rely on that method.”

While the mileage may vary, what’s most apparent in the morning is a steeled optimism. The experience may be suboptimal, but when students are forced into these circumstances, they rally—sort of.

“You don’t see people falling asleep a lot in classes—people just don’t come,” says Li. She’s right—the only time heads seem to droop (before the inevitable jolt up and sheepish glance around the room) are during the most impersonal of lectures, where attendance tops a couple hundred. Mostly, students make the optimal tradeoff for their over-programmed selves, attending class when they can, and sleeping when they must. It goes back to what Lipp says: The opportunity costs for early morning lectures are higher. If students are willing to forego sleep for your class, your class must be pretty engaging.

And even in the worst-case scenario, as Li explains, from the student’s perspective, a classroom nap is a step in the right direction. “For those who were in lecture who actually fell asleep, well, at least they’re trying.”

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.