Living and Learning on the Third Shift

A great deal of work and learning -- and less ideal activities -- unfold on campuses overnight. Colleges should pay more attention to what happens then, writes Lee Burdette Williams.


January 11, 2011

At about 8:15 every weekday morning I make my way to my office at the center of this small campus. I am one of several others arriving, and we walk alone, or in twos and threes, across East Main Street and toward the buildings in which most of us will spend most of our days. We rarely see a student. They are, for the most part, sound asleep in the residence halls and houses that spread out across campus. I sometimes pick up a beer can or cardboard French fries container, evidence that they have passed this way recently.

At 4:30 in the afternoon, most of those who arrived early that morning make their way back across East Main and to their cars. They may encounter students heading to or from an athletic practice on a nearby field, or walking from the more distant student parking lot back to their dorms and dining halls. My job usually keeps me here later — sometimes 6 p.m., sometimes 8 or 10 p.m. On my way out, I pass many more coming from their parking lot, students carrying pizza boxes, bags of groceries, six or 12-packs of beer, ready to dig in for a night of studying, TV-watching, or partying. As the clock ticks toward late evening, the third shift is about to begin.

Perhaps it’s because I spent the early part of my work life doing shift work that I’ve come to demarcate the day, and the world, into three distinct factions: first, second and third shifts. Though I’ve been out of the formal shift-based workplace for years, my circadian clock seems to be permanently divided into three eight-hour blocks of time, and when I look at my campus and think about my students, this place and these people are backlit by the glow of that clock.

The first shift is the one that begins just before or right around the time of that walk in each morning. Though our cleaning staff, our food service employees and some of our physical plant workers have been on campus since 6 or 7 a.m., we open for business at 8:30 a.m. During the next eight hours, classrooms will fill with students and faculty engaged in the formal learning that is our raison d’etre. In various administrative offices, phones will be answered, forms will be filled out, bills will be paid, students will be admitted, correspondence will be drafted, and e-mail will arrive, unceasingly, demanding a response. Meetings will be held, out of which plans will come for new buildings, new programs, student dismissals, tenure and promotion. It’s the five-day-a–week life of a campus. Not enough time to get it all done, but all the time we have on the first shift.

Sometimes the work of the first shift spills over to the second, and people in various roles, including faculty, go home to a few more hours of e-mail follow-up, report-writing, class-preparing or exam-grading. Back on campus, the second shift is a busy one. It’s when students are engaged in the semi-formal, as opposed to the formal, learning that goes on constantly.

Some are still in classrooms, as the class schedule here, like on most campuses, extends into the evening. They are on athletic fields and courts, participating in varsity, club and intramural athletics. They are in the campus coffee house meeting with a study group, or in the library studying on their own. They are attending lectures, singing in recitals, rehearsing with their a cappella groups, strategizing with fellow student senators to outwit the administration, writing stories for the student paper. They do some of this with us nearby; the second shift employees of student activities and programs, arts and cultural events, emerge from their offices and oversee the bustle of the 7 to 10 p.m. block. And in some instances, we are nowhere nearby, but will hear about their progress (or lack of it) in the morning.

Eventually, they close their books, end their rehearsals, file out of the auditoriums and study carrels, labs and coffee shops. Night, “smoky-scarv’d,” as Rupert Brooke described it, seeps in from the edges of the horizon. The third shift is beginning. It is the shift that is staffed primarily by the officers of the campus safety department and the residence life staff, and it is when some of the most intense, most harrowing, and most life-altering learning goes on. I know about it because one of my first tasks each morning is to review the reports from our Public Safety department. The formal, stilted language of the reports is a jarring contrast to the content, which usually involves emotional crises and physical manifestations of bad decisions (vomit and blood are often mentioned, as is damaged property).

Sometimes the reported situation is so bizarre as to be humorous (a residence hall room door completely covered in Pop-Tarts, for example; a naked senior picked up by Public Safety on a campus road; a first-year student who sat on a tube of Super Glue and required the services of the local rescue squad). Sometimes the names are familiar: students who have already established themselves as drinkers, partiers or hot-tempered drama queens. Sometimes this is our introduction to them, and our second date will be in one of our offices, sorting out and hopefully resolving the situation.

I was listening in on a recent student forum about alcohol policy changes and was struck by something one student, a senior resident adviser and one I know to be particularly observant, said about our campus. The issue on the table was damage billing — who pays for vandalism when the actual perpetrator cannot be identified. Gabrielle said to her peers, “But you can’t just figure out what to do based on what we’re like during the day, when the campus is all 'lovey' and nice. You know how different it is after midnight.” The others in the room nodded. Of course they know. Another student in the same forum said, “I think there’s a lot of damage because people are bored. There’s nothing to do between the hours of, like, 2 and 4 a.m., so just to have fun some people do stupid things like flip over the recycling containers and smash all the bottles, or unroll toilet paper all over the floor.”

I sat there silently deconstructing these statements. Gabrielle is absolutely right. Our students are different people late at night. In our classrooms and offices during the day or the library or practice rooms in the evening, they are smart, charming, ambitious, clear-headed and reasonably nice to one another. But like a collegiate version of Teen Wolf, as the clock ticks closer to midnight, they become unrecognizable to us.

These students whose company I enjoy during the day and evening live a second life, one so incongruent with the first that I would swear their bodies have been snatched and replaced with pod people. They cheat on their boyfriends and girlfriends (and then watch as a fistfight between the two “suitors” develops). They mix their prescription medications with vodka and strong coffee. They do damage to drywall that I simply can’t comprehend. These are some of the same students I’ve watched excel on the baseball field or in the swimming pool, create beautiful art, lead a meeting, reach out to a troubled friend.

Recently, a student I know was named on a Monday morning report. I saw his name and said it out loud to my colleague, a look of complete incredulity on my face (the permanent lines on my face caused by this expression are a hazard of my job). My colleague responded with a head shake: “No way.” This student is a senior, a recent winner of a prestigious national scholarship based on his public service plans and his impressive academic and service-related track record. Not an inkling of trouble in three years, and yet here he was, having been transported to the local hospital because he was passed out with a bottle of vodka in his hand. Teen Wolf, I thought. Full moon

And the second statement I heard from a student at the forum left me pondering as well. I didn’t say what I (and most people over the age of 23) would like to say, which is that a really great activity to engage in between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m. is sleeping. Or that, despite what they might have experienced growing up, life is not a constantly-scheduled play date, and sometimes you have to plan your own (non-destructive) fun. Instead, I wondered what they would actually like us to be doing to entertain them at that hour. Do we need to have 24-hour dining options available, as some campuses now offer? Round-the-clock programs and events?

But it’s not just alcohol and entertainment that they indicate would meet their third-shift needs. Based on written reports from Public Safety and conversations with professional and student residence hall staff, our students’ propensity to be in the midst of crisis is significantly higher after midnight. They are phantoms of a campus-based opera, and the music of their night is full of intrigue, pathos and revelations, each sensation sharpened, heightened. These are the hours when relationships end and hearts are broken, when reality crushes academic dreams (the pre-med student realizing she will never, ever do better than C work in chemistry), when roommate squabbles escalate into emotional battles that enlist others on the floor, when feelings of loneliness, anxiety, sadness and despair ratchet into the danger zone, when the big — the enormous, really — questions about life and death and meaning are tossed around in a residence hall conversation, and the same students who will appear to doze through an 8 a.m. philosophy class will come alive with intellectual excitement.

And where are we? Most of us, if we’re lucky, are sound asleep. But even if we are awake and dealing with our own crises or questions or just plain insomnia, we are not in the presence of our students. In what I’ve come to think of as one of the great contradictions of our work, we are furthest from our students at the times they might benefit most from our presence. The adults with whom they are most likely to interact are our campus safety officers, trained in many ways but not typically skilled or interested in wrestling with the great existential or personal dilemmas our students pose. The others on duty at that time? Our front-line residence hall professionals, most commonly our youngest and least-experienced staff members, many of them just a few years past their own undergraduate experience. And these staff are available only to the minority of college students, as many more live off-campus without even these resources nearby.

If we were to design a similar staffing structure in the retail world, we would be out of business in short order. Imagine a convenience store that closed at noon, a shopping mall that shuttered its doors on the weekends, a train schedule that ignored common commuter times. Imagine a restaurant that served exquisite dinners… at 2 p.m. Or a pub that opened at 8 a.m. and closed at 4 p.m. None would survive, and on the way to their demise, people would say, “Geez. What were they thinking?” But on our campuses, many of us miss the big stuff that happens daily (and nightly) for our students. Geez, I wonder, what are we thinking?

With any luck, we’re not thinking. We’re sleeping. Like many people in jobs similar to mine, I’ve done my share of work on the third shift and am happy to turn the work over to those who are younger and more able to recover from an all-nighter than I am. And of course, we have to be there during the day to interact with the rest of the world, including the parents of these same students. I’m certainly not proposing an academic or co-curricular schedule that offers classes or activities in the 2 to 4 a.m. slot.

That’s as unreasonable and unlikely as requiring my students to turn off their lights and computers and cell phones and go to sleep at 11 p.m. I liked staying up till all hours when I was young. I loved the fog of mystery and romance that descended on a campus after midnight — the change in mood, the edge of lawlessness and intrigue that could not be replicated during the day, and of course the emotional jitteriness that came with too little sleep and too much caffeine and provoked the intense and deeply meaningful conversations that we all remember from our college days. I have, as Frost wrote, been one acquainted with the night.

Rather than make a suggestion to turn our work schedule on its head, I want to find a way to validate the work of the third shift, work done by students and staff, and to seek ways to leverage it for deeper learning. I want my first-shift colleagues to know about and acknowledge the complex and sometimes fraught work that goes on after midnight and share the respect I have for my third-shift colleagues who keep our students safe when they walk closer to the edge than they ever do at two in the afternoon. And while students are not necessarily looking for us to watch over them through the night, any more than they want their parents hovering nearby, we do need to find ways to connect the deep and lasting learning that happens in those dark and mysterious hours with the education we work so hard to provide on the other two shifts. Somewhere, in the combining of these very different moods and methods, lies great potential for life-altering, career-directing, world-changing student learning. That possibility doesn’t keep me up at night, but it does send me off to sleep with a sense of anticipation for the start of the new day.


Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.


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