GENED 1038: Sleep was once known to be the gemmiest of gems. It fulfills Harvard’s Science & Technology in Society General Education requirement without demanding excessive hours in a lab or long nights working on dense problem sets — a gift from heaven for more humanities-inclined students like myself.
Still, the course offers a compelling introduction into an important field of scientific research. The class is taught by leading researchers who have dedicated their careers to understanding the relationship between the circadian pacemaker and wake-sleep homeostasis, conducted cutting-edge studies on topics like the effect of light exposure on melatonin secretion before sleep and the cardiovascular impact of circadian misalignment, and assisted professional athletes in crafting their sleeping routines. All this expertise to help students discern the answer to one question: Why do we sleep?
This Fall, however, students will have to work harder to seek an answer: Sleep has ceased its gemminess and become a hard, old rock. It seems the Gen Ed Gods deemed the course too much of a gift to struggling humanities students, with a number of changes seemingly having been made to increase difficulty. This semester, in-class quizzes have been instituted at the start and finish of each class. Students must now sit for a cumulative final exam worth 30 percent of their course grade which takes the place of the old 10-page term paper.
Harvard’s attempt to re-create GENED 1038 is wrong — not because it makes our lives harder, but because to de-gemify Sleep is to defeat the class’ essential purpose: to promote student wellbeing.
Sleep is a mental wellness class. Alongside mini-assignments designed to introduce us to scientific research skills and readings on key concepts, a significant portion of the coursework is spent using software to track and reflect on one’s own sleeping habits. A survey, completed every morning and evening, asks basic, quantitative (e.g. “What time did you try to fall asleep? and “What time did you finally wake up?”) and qualitative questions.
Being a qualitative Sociology concentrator, I took interest in one in particular:
“For each of the following, indicate how you feel right now by clicking on each line and adjusting the sliders.” (The line stretches from “Stressed Out” to “Calm / Relaxed”).
Each day of our sleep diary period, I have had to wake up and mindfully consider how I feel. I’ve noticed that, as soon as the day starts and the assignments pile up in my brain, I consistently self-evaluate more stressed out than calm. Generally, though, I feel fine.
I asked a friend, another senior who’s taking Sleep to save time for work on their thesis, whether they had a similar experience.
“No doubt,” they said. “I’m never above 50 percent.”
Surely, we’re not alone in feeling this way. Is there something wrong with us?
No, not really. Our stress is a by-product of Harvard’s environment. Most students who come here were superstars in their hometown. Even if we don’t mean to be competitive or performative, we are — that’s what got us here. As such, if you don’t watch out, your identity can quickly reduce to the things you do. How many midterms do you have this week? When’s your next case interview? How’s leadership on that extracurricular going? Before you know it, all you can say about yourself is your elevator pitch for your thesis or your name, year, house, and concentration.
But, who are you? Like, really: who… are… you?
The most powerful way we can counter this grave reality is to wake up every morning and make a conscious decision to rest. This is my non-scientific answer to the age-old question about sleep’s function: It forces us to remember that we are not simply what we do — that we are so much more. Sleep is a mini-Sabbath.
The faculty of the Sleep Gen Ed and members of the Committee on General Education have a choice: to join the revolution of rest or to succumb to the system. I applaud class faculty and teaching staff for the progress thus far. It is not easy to structure a class one way and then to restructure it in the opposite. In a welcome change, in-class quiz questions seem to have become easier and readings have lightened, but the work is unfinished.
Sleep is one small part of the constant fight to prioritize student well-being over performance, and we’re winning. It is time for administration, professors, and students to have broader conversations about our school’s culture — to envision a world where academics don’t have to worry about quantifying class performance or productivity to prove themselves credible. Where students smile in lecture because they know their professors care. Where we transcend the fog that falls during midterm season and we see each other for who we are.
In a pile of cold, hard stones, Sleep can be a gem again.
Sterling M. Bland ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and African and African American Studies in Quincy House.