A history of UC Berkeley’s ‘dead week’

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Charlene Wang/Staff

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The Reading, Review and Recitation, or RRR, week — better known as “dead week” — at UC Berkeley has not always existed in the form we know and love so well, and it’s thanks to the activism of students over the years that we have the time we do to reset, recharge and prepare for finals.

It’s common practice across college campuses in the United States to designate time at the end of the term for students to begin to prepare for finals week. This manifests in different forms at different schools: Often, students still attend regular classes, and instructors are simply expected to refrain from presenting any new material. For example, UC Santa Barbara’s academic policies “strongly discourage” giving examinations or holding any mandatory noninstructional events in the last week of classes, although neither is prohibited.

RRR at UC Berkeley is more formal and longer than its equivalents at other U.S. colleges and universities. The Monday through Friday after the last day of classes is a time when mandatory exams, quizzes or activities, as well as required submission of papers or projects assigned in lieu of a final exam, are not permitted.

The exact timeline of the implementation of dead week at UC Berkeley — and the different forms it has taken over the years — is not well documented. But the idea that students benefit from additional time to synthesize course material prior to finals week has been recognized for decades.

In 1954, the UC Office of the President issued guidelines advising instructors to not present new material in the last week of classes. But in 1961, students running for ASUC positions still called for a dead week that granted more time to students.

“I would prefer having a dead week in which there are no classes and no homework. In other words, a week that could be devoted entirely to students,” student Terry Timmins stated in his official platform for ASUC representative at large, as published in The Daily Californian on April 21, 1961.

There have always been times when instructors have infringed upon students’ ability to hone in on their final exams and projects during this final week of classes. But student voices have historically been critical to maintaining this much-needed time to rest and study. UC Berkeley’s Academic Senate, the group of faculty empowered by the UC Board of Regents to determine academic policy, reconfirmed this recommendation in 1984 and 1991, likely in response to students’ needs and desires.

Honoring these calls for change, the term “dead days” was used colloquially by UC Berkeley students in the late 1990s and early 2000s to refer to the 15th week of classes when instructors were discouraged from presenting any new material. The official implementation of “dead week,” however, came in 2009, in response to a 2008 report released by the Joint Task Force on exams, a subgroup of the Academic Senate. Its recommendation to institute a five-day RRR period was made after consultation with many student groups and the Student Advisory Council on Undergraduate Education.

“Students consistently request more ‘dead days’ in the academic calendar to allow them to synthesize and review course material and to complete final papers and projects,” the report reads.

This request has been honored in academic policy ever since. There are, however, some exceptions, which explains why you might find yourself scrambling to turn in a term paper in the middle of RRR week. These days still count as days of instruction as required for financial aid purposes because instructors are encouraged to engage with students by holding review sessions and additional office hours.

Amy Gurowitz, continuing lecturer in political science, attended UC Berkeley as an undergraduate and has taught at the campus since 2000. She does not remember having a dead week as a student nor the 2009 implementation of dead week on campus, but she does see it as part of a broader societal and institutional shift to focus on the health and wellness of young people.

“What I sense is a larger trend of being more responsive to student stress and anxiety in general. I think most faculty would agree that we’ve seen a real uptick in that. We have way more DSP (Disabled Students’ Program) accommodations than ever, way more sort of higher level administrative messaging,” Gurowitz said.

Based on how RRR week plays out today, the relief students generally need is a break from their schoolwork entirely. Many students do not start studying until the second half of the week, using the first several days instead to participate in end-of-semester events for student organizations and catch up with friends. Various student traditions have been built up around RRR week, such as the Naked Run through Main Stacks library, traditionally held on one of the last nights of the week.

With a full nine days ahead of you this RRR week, it can be easy to treat the time as simply a break from school. A closer look at the origins of this practice reveals that we have generations of UC Berkeley students — and faculty who responded to the calls of these students — to thank for our extended time to prepare for finals. Dead week is not something to be taken for granted.

Beatrice Aronson is the special issues editor. Contact her at [email protected].