Faculty Debate J-term

Professors consider course options, grading scheme for January Term

For decades Harvard students have griped about taking their books home over winter break. And when a University committee recommended last year that all Harvard schools adopt the same calendar, it looked like their dream of a free winter vacation might come true.

The decision of whether to move exams before break will be voted on by the Faculty along with the other recommendations of the ongoing curricular review. But the Faculty will also vote, perhaps as early as this spring, on whether there should be a separate three-week January Term, or J-term, after break. The term, which would be held between the fall and spring semesters, would allow students to pursue a range of elective courses, several of which would include travel abroad.

While faculty are still brainstorming on how the term would work, the changes to the calendar, which could be implemented with or without the J-term, would mean 62 days of class for each semester, five to eight days of reading period and an eight-day exam period, according to a report issued last spring by the University committee on calendar reform chaired by Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba ’53. Were a J-term to be adopted, there may still be an intercession.

Earlier this fall, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby appointed Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Tom Conley as the chair of a committee to flesh out the details of a J-term. Last year, the committee on pedagogy decided to “hold off” on “getting into the nitty-gritty details of a proposal,” says Liz Cohen, Jones professor of American Studies and co-chair of the pedagogy committee.

Conley says that the committee will not argue for or against the creation of a J-term, but rather discuss how one could be implemented. “Whatever propositions we make, those propositions will not be made any way to argue for a change in the calendar,” he says. “It will only take place if the calendar takes place.”

In a Crimson poll of 391 undergraduates conducted in October, 77 percent of students said they would be in favor of moving exams before break, while 55 percent of those in favor said they would support a J-term.

Kirby said in an interview in October that the ultimate decision of whether to have a J-term rests not with the Faculty who will debate it this spring, but with Harvard’s Governing Boards. “If the Faculty of Arts and Sciences determined that in order to have the best possible curriculum we would have to go to a different structure of the academic year...the governing boards would determine the beginning, end, and date of commencement,” he said.

While no formal recommendations have been made as to how a J-term—which was first recommended in last year’s Report on the Harvard College Curricular Review—would work, many faculty contacted for this article were highly critical of the idea.

“I would say that [the] most critical issue is whether [the J-term] will be something serious or something Mickey Mouse,” says Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53. “I feel that it will greatly be the latter. Harvard is already easy enough. We don’t need more of this.”

Baird Professor of Science Gary J. Feldman says he doesn’t think a J-term would be the best use of students’ time. “The cons of changing the system, and a lot of faculty are concerned about this, is that this reduces time where students have to prepare for exams,” he says.

And Professor of the History of Science Everett I. Mendelsohn says students could get bogged down with all the choices.

“My gut feeling is that the variety of potentials is so great that most people will not do anything,” he says.

But whether or not faculty rally behind the J-term proposal, some say it is in the cards. “I see it as destiny,” Conley says. “I see the University moving in that direction, but also a lot of reticence to it, just because people are used to the current academic rhythms.”

THE NITTY GRITTY

Despite many professors’ “gut reaction” against the new term, some say their opinions are not set in stone.

“The faculty has, to date, not had a serious discussion of calendar reform,” Mendelsohn says. “I could be convinced for either, but I would like to see more evidence.”

“I think we need to know a little bit more before we can develop opinions about it,” says Dean of the Social Sciences David Cutler. “In the abstract, it’s hard to say anything—it’s like asking, are you in favor of Harvard having a medical school?”

Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 says it is too early to comment on the proposal

“I could give you my thoughts, but at this point they would be premature,” he writes in an e-mail. “I’d prefer to wait to comment on what the faculty committee considering J-term comes up with.”

Conley admits that the faculty members, many of whom might not like the idea of an increased teaching load, still have to be won over, and he says that faculty “perks” will be written into the deal.

“We would not want to impose more on faculty,” he says. “If they chose to teach during a J-term, there would be encouragements written into it.”

Among the details Conley’s committee are ironing out are whether the classes should be pass/fail, how interdisciplinary they should be, how to permit students to go abroad and whether pre-professional internships should be allowed for credit.

“I see a move towards physical work—interning in some professional way in medicine or law, or investigation in field work overseas,” he says.

Conley says that the committee is leaning towards grading on a pass/fail basis only and is designing the semester in order to maximize student flexibility.

“One of the members of the committee observed that Harvard undergraduates are robbed of the elective qualities of their education because they have so many requisites to fulfill,” he says. “This would fulfill that sense of free-inquiry and freedom of intellectual movement.”

While Conley says the committee has yet to decide whether the J-term will be mandatory, he writes in an e-mail that “the most successful [J-terms] are mandatory in varying degrees.”

In keeping with a move towards more interdisciplinary teaching, Conley says faculty will be invited to collaborate with each other—and with students. “We are going to have faculty and student taught courses—or a course where students teach faculty,” he says. “I know one area where students can teach faculty—web construction and electronic design. Of course, students will also get credit for that.”

The committee will also recommend that a new office and administrative officer be created to run the J-term.

“We want to be ready to have a J-term, and have its functioning accounted for by software, hardware and staff,” Conley says.

While many of them will not be around to see it, some students said they were excited about the prospect of taking courses outside of the semester system.

“I’m somebody who looks at the course catalogue and want to take every course in the humanities,” says Georgia K. Faircloth ’08, a potential folklore and mythology concentrator. “If I want to take a course on William Blake, I might not have time to do that during the regular school year. To me, it would be like the ability of taking another freshman seminar.”

Hana Lee ’07, a biochemistry concentrator, says the term would be “just long enough to do something interesting without being overly committed to it.”

“I feel that it would be interesting to be able to take courses that I would not ordinarily take during the school year, or simply have the opportunity to travel or the opportunity to work with alumni,” she says.

FOLLOWING THE PACK

While considering how to implement a J-term at Harvard, Conley’s committee is looking at universities around the world—even as far as New Zealand.

But one of their closest models is just down the river at MIT.

MIT students have enjoyed a form of J-term called the Independent Activities Period (IAP) for almost 35 years, according to Michael Bergren, assistant dean for academic and research initiatives. The term starts on the first Monday of January and lasts four weeks. “This separate period—where people can do something different academically—provides flexibility in how we learn and how we teach,” he says.

Non-credit courses such as “Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth”—a course with the description: “Come play with sugar!”—are offered by not only alumni and faculty, but also by student groups.

MIT’s term is not mandatory and most classes are pass/fail. While Bergren could not provide any statistics about the number of students who take the term in any year, MIT senior Rose A. Grabowski says it is very popular.

“Generally, students love it…there are tons of people who take it,” says Grabowski, a member of MIT’s Undergraduate Association. “There are people who get jobs during IAP, students are hooked up with alumni…some people travel, some do random activities, or research.”

While students can choose to enroll in the extra four weeks at MIT, at Williams College, Winter Study is mandatory. According to James G. Kolesar, director of Public Affairs at Williams College, every student is required to enroll in a course during the Winter Study period. All Winter Study courses are graded on a pass-fail system and university administrators, alumni or even individuals not affiliated with Williams College may teach courses, as long as a faculty sponsor is present.

“A typical class would meet three times a week for two hours each,” Kolesar says. “A typical teaching load [for professors] is two courses per semester, and one winter study every other year.”

Students at Williams say the courses are both academically and socially rewarding. “I’ve taken a course on astronomy, that I would have never taken, and also Congolese dance,” says Ilunga Kalala, a senior and co-president of the College Council at Williams. “The Winter Study period is a great opportunity where you really get to meet the students around you.”

But while students point to the substantial coursework, Kolesar says that many faculty members feel that students are not working hard enough during Winter Study.

“The faculty have mixed feelings about it,” he says. “Many students don’t put as much effort into the Winter Study courses…it’s been discussed as to whether the courses should be graded.”

Similar lines of discussion have filled the administrative halls of the University of Virginia (UVA), where a non-mandatory January term will be implemented for the very first time this year.

UVA Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Edward L. Ayers and Vice Provost for Academic Programs Milton Adams, both big proponents of the program, said they just began working on the details last spring.

According to Dudley J. Doane, director of the Summer School and January Term, due to an immovable calendar system, the newly planned J-term will last from Jan. 3 to the 13, translating to approximately 40 total hours of class time.

And UVA’s program, the newest on the block, seems to have arisen under similar circumstances to the Harvard proposal. Doane said the idea for a January Term came from administrators as part of their curricular review.

Like the discussion of the proposed Harvard J-term, UVA’s program is designed to encourage students to go abroad and to allow for greater student flexibility. “We wanted to create…more opportunities for travel with faculty, and more interdisciplinary work, but there was little flexibility in our current schedule,” Ayers says.

—Staff writer Risheng Xu can be reached at xu4@fas.harvard.edu.