I’ve been trying to figure out what it is exactly that bugs me about this trend towards creating puppy rooms at Canadian universities. It’s not that I dislike dogs. I like dogs. I had a dog growing up. And who doesn’t like puppies?
If you haven’t been following university news lately, the gist is this: universities have taken to setting up special rooms with friendly dogs as a way to help students cope with stress, especially around exam time. The idea has been around for a while, but Dalhousie University’s new Puppy Room got picked up by the national and international media and suddenly everybody and his dog has one.
But like I say, there’s something about this cuddly craze that isn’t sitting well with me.
Part of it might be that it feels a bit like treating university students like children. You’re upset? Don’t cry! We’ll get you a puppy! Part of it might be that the whole thing has a distinct bandwagon feel about it: they have a puppy room, so we need a puppy room, too! Part of it is certainly that I wish most of my students were more worried about their work – they might do more of it if they were.
But it’s not just that. There’s something deeper. I think it’s what it says about the whole idea of stress at universities.
I was a university student for many years, so I know a bit about academic stress. I felt it. And as a professor, I see sometimes see students who are stressed. Now, of course there are people with genuine, serious, psychological problems who need medical attention, but when it comes to academic stress, there is really one big cause. Students have more work than they feel they can handle.
Why? In some cases it’s simply because they are in a tough course of study and it just has to be that hard. More often, the student has come to university unprepared. In other cases, the student has put off work during the term and now he’s paying the price. I’ve done it myself. But when the chickens come home to roost, our first reaction should not be going to the dogs.
In my experience there is only one sure-fire cure when you are stressed because of a lot of work.
And getting your mind off of books for a while is not work. It’s the opposite of work.
Dogs are great. But a friendly Dachshund isn’t going to write your paper on German imperialism. And a poodle won’t tutor you in French. A million puppies typing on a million keyboards won’t write your lab report or help you study for your economics final. In fact, while playing fetch with Rex might be pleasant in the short term, after the dog days of the puppy room are over, you’ll have even less time to study Latin than before.
Don’t get me wrong. If you want to pop into the puppy room for ten minutes before your exam, knock yourself out. Nevertheless, academic stress should not be treated like just another cold: everyone gets it and there’s no cure. If we mistakenly look at it that way, we ignore the factors that are making students stressed in the first place. In other words, if we really want to help students with stress, we should be doing more to encourage high schools to get them ready for university before they get here. And we should be doing more to teach them what hard work really looks like.
Because, I’ll tell you this about hard work: it doesn’t look like a room full of puppies.