A J-Term Education for Students—And Professors

Rebecca D. O’brien

This month I am reading the Inquiries of Herodotus with 15 students and a colleague in Middlebury College’s Classics department. I say that I am reading Herodotus rather than teaching Herodotus because—unlike my colleague, who brings his knowledge of Greek language and literature—I have never studied the Inquiries before. I am reading it fresh, just as are almost all of our students. Of course, I could have read the book by myself, but as any teacher knows, the best way to study a book that deserves careful reading is to teach it. Liberal education joins reading good books in private with conversation about them together in a class. Middlebury College’s winter term offers teachers a perfect opportunity to extend their education.

I came to teach at Middlebury in the fall of 1968, the same academic year the winter term arrived. The 4-1-4 calendar, in which a one-month special term is sandwiched between two four-month regular terms, has been a huge success with students; it is an academic change of pace, and, to paraphrase Marx, they can go to class in the morning, ski in the afternoon and study in the evening. I like winter term because it encourages faculty members to broaden, as well as deepen, their education—to be students as well as scholars. During the regular semesters, there are opportunities to do this; faculty members teach required first-year seminars. But for the most part, regular-semester courses are identified with a department and a discipline and are designed to cover a certain body of knowledge. College teachers are expected to know something and to be able to teach it; for most courses it is not enough for a teacher to be an eager student and a good reader.

I teach American political thought, constitutional law and political philosophy. During the past 36 years, I have taken advantage of Middlebury’s winter term to study Plato’s Laws, Thucydides, Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, Rousseau’s Emile, the French Revolution, Henry Kissinger, the Puritans, The Education of Henry Adams, Paradise Lost, some Shakespeare plays and criminal justice in America. I have taught many of these courses with other regular and visiting faculty members, including a former student who is a lawyer, and my brother, with whom I enjoyed teaching Shakespeare. The presence of two teachers in a small class (15 to 20 students) encourages discussion rather than lecturing: students learn to talk—and listen—to one another, not just to one “authority.” My co-teachers also bring different teaching styles into class, and that enhances the educational experience. Collaborative teaching can take place during the regular semesters, but winter term is an ideal time for it. In addition, students and faculty have no other course commitments during this time.

However, not all my colleagues support winter term, and that is why we are reevaluating it this year, as we have in the past. Later this spring, Middlebury’s faculty will vote on whether to retain or abolish winter term. The main objections from faculty and administrators are that the “extra preparation” causes “burn-out” for the spring semester; that 12 weeks is not enough time to cover a subject; and that some students have personal and social difficulties dealing with their “free time.”

I am hopeful that we will vote to retain our 4-1-4 calendar. Students and faculty benefit from this academic change of pace. I don’t think lengthening the two regular semesters would produce an equal benefit. Those faculty members who vote to retain winter term will do so for different reasons. Some, including those who teach introductory foreign language courses, love the teaching opportunity, as I do. In addition, faculty members in departments that schedule comprehensive examinations for their seniors during January will also support winter term. As well, faculty members who do not have to teach during winter term, and members of the physical education department, who use that time for extra practices, will vote to keep the term. Whether this coalition will be sufficient to win the day remains to be seen.

Members of the Harvard College community, as part of a broader curricular review, soon will decide whether to adopt a 4-1-4 calendar, just as Middlebury is considering dropping it. Herodotus emphasizes the varying customs of different peoples, and he suggests that what works in one place might not work in another. I think that applies to academic calendars also.

I support winter term at Middlebury because it provides an opportunity for students and teachers to come together in concentrated common study. I suspect this is a good thing at any liberal arts college. So the best question the committees reevaluating Harvard’s curriculum and its calendar should ask is: How might Harvard encourage its senior faculty to teach undergraduates, so that they come together in small classes for discussion, no matter what time of year?

Murray Dry is Dana professor of political science at Middlebury College. He was a visiting professor in the Department of Government at Harvard in Spring 2003.