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Akst: That bell is tolling again at NIU

What’s happening at Northern Illinois University today?


Well, not really nothing. NIU employees will have a mostly normal day (research, paperwork, maintenance, service, grading, etc.), but classes aren’t in session.

Today is “Reading Day” at NIU. No classes are scheduled in hopes that students spend the day … um, reading … to prepare for final exams, which begin next week.

Speaking of finals, if you live anywhere near NIU, please be especially attentive and wary next week. Thousands of sleep-deprived, malnourished, inattentive, overstimulated people will drive and walk the streets. Think Zombie Apocalypse without the flesh eating.

You do NOT want to encounter these people.

Reading Day is an upbeat euphemism for “Dead Day,” the end of “Dead Week,” in which colleges and universities in theory relax assignments, projects and tests.

Fun fact: Google thinks a search about Dead Day is really a search about Day of the Dead, the celebration of dearly departed relatives and friends that’s popular throughout Latin America.

Anyway, the reason teachers should chill is to give students time and space to prepare for finals.

Until a few decades ago, many colleges really did observe Dead Day/Week, but it wasn’t a vacation. Classes, notes and reviews occurred; people learned. The learning was purposeful, more reflective, slower and less painful.

Nowadays (if the Internet is any indication), what happens is that far from chilling, faculty members are serving extra helpings of papers, projects and tests.

We do this because we’re sadists, bad planners and as foreplay to the big event – finals – next week.

Mwa ha ha ha ha!, an online source of satirical but often useful information, offers this about dead week: “A weeklong holiday in which the university try [sic] to juke students in to believing its [sic] a concentrated study period, when actually its [sic] a time for professors to give out as many exams as they can; also known as the week holiday [sic] professors enjoy to sit back, laugh & torment students ... modern-day name: ‘Professor bullyism.’ ”

Hopefully, you realize much of this is overblown. I’m not empowered to speak for my colleagues, but like any workplace, we chat, and I can certainly speak for myself.

Here’s a more accurate look of the last week of classes and finals:

• The syllabi faculty are required to disseminate the first week of classes are legal documents that clearly specify what’s required, when it’s due and how grades are calculated. If they read syllabi, students know what’s coming nearly every day. Many assignments can be accomplished without penalty in advance.

• Since we’ve been to college, we realize finals and final projects can be very stressful.

• We also realize finals are questionable measurements of a student’s intellect and ability.

So why do it?

No one ever accused me of being deficient in cynicism, but whenever I hear that colleges should be run more like businesses, my first reaction is that that mindset is one of the main things wrong with colleges.

The main point of a college education now is to help get students a job. It’s preparation for a culture of work in which short-term profits are valued more than long-term quality, where projects, meetings and priorities unfold at crushing speed and often without legitimacy, where people at the top get ridiculous paychecks while the wages of those in the trenches remain flat, and so on.

See the parallels?

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. Reach him at

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