UC Berkeley computer science students push back against 80-hour workweek

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A UC Berkeley undergraduate student’s tweet criticizing electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS, professor Anant Sahai recently gained traction among the campus community, raising questions regarding the pressure and high expectations computer science students face.

On March 2, Claire Dubin, a UC Berkeley senior studying microbial biology and data science, posted a tweet expressing her frustration with the time commitment required of computer science students, highlighting a culture considered by many to be inconsiderate of student well-being and the time needed to work part-time jobs. Dubin’s tweet came in response to a now-deleted Reddit post on r/berkeley and received more than a hundred retweets and 533 likes as of press time.

Dubin’s tweet included a screenshot of a computer science, or CS, 70 course capture video from 2014 that showed Sahai presenting a PowerPoint slide, providing his “perspective on your time” — a daily sample schedule allotting two hours for “sustenance,” one hour for “serenity,” a half-hour for exercise and one hour for miscellaneous activities. He designated the entire remaining time — 11 1/2 hours a day — to studying, for a weekly total of 80.5 hours devoted toward academics.

“I posted (the tweet) because I was shocked that (the) professor is so out of touch with the lives of his students,” Dubin said in an email. “Telling students that they should work 80 hours/week promotes an extremely unhealthy work-life balance that few people can actually achieve.”

Dubin added that the CS department has “a long way to go” to accommodate students from nontraditional backgrounds, adding that nearly all her friends have to work a job outside of classes to make ends meet. Though Sahai said in his lecture that “it is possible to pass” the course by putting in just 12 hours per week, successful students would spend far more time on the material.

Both the campus’s online Academic Guide and Academic Senate require less time from students than Sahai does. The Academic Guide approximates about 14 hours of commitment per week, higher than the Academic Senate’s policy, which states that “units shall be reckoned at the rate of one unit for three hours’ work per week.”

“You might know that the class is officially four units and four units officially translates to 12 hours a week. That is different from 20 — I know this,” Sahai said in the recorded lecture. “So technically, I believe it is possible to pass at 12 hours per week. It should be possible to pass, but hopefully most of you don’t just want to pass and you might have to work harder and that’s fine. That’s why you’re here.”

Assuming students take four technical courses per semester, he added that students could “sustainably operate” working a total of 80.5 hours per week for all of their classes.

ASUC President Alexander Wilfert, who retweeted the post, said this tweet reflects a culture that pushes students past their breaking point.

“In short, it’s particularly disadvantageous to students who have to work,” Wilfert said.

Kavi Gupta, a senior studying EECS and an undergraduate student instructor for CS 61A, said that in addition to pressure levied upon students by individual faculty members, there is an inherent pressure for students to succeed in order to meet the minimum 3.3 GPA necessary to declare the CS major. CS 70 — the class Sahai taught — is one of three classes whose grade counts toward this GPA minimum.

Gupta added that the department is optimized for students who have prior experience in computer science and for those who program in their free time. Some students, he said, get discouraged by the workload.

Nicholas Weaver, a visiting lecturer who received his doctorate in computer science from UC Berkeley, said in an email that the major is overall “very demanding,” adding that projects at times require a more rigorous schedule for a couple weeks.  

“At the same time, as a(n) instructor, I need to understand that students have other demands as well,” Weaver said in the email. “Students need to work, they need to relax, they need to actually enjoy their college experience. And they have other classes!”

Sahai was not available for comment as of press time.

Contact Sasha Langholz at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LangholzSasha‏.