A Great Change to the Calendar

A couple of weeks ago, the University Committee on Calendar Reform made public its final recommendations for a new academic calendar at Harvard. Lost to some extent in the frenzied push to Spring break, the committee’s recommendations have the potential to change life at Harvard and to change it for the better. As one of the undergraduates on the committee, I will tell you why.

The “fall” semester at Harvard currently lasts for nearly five months, stretching from September to January. Weeks after all of our friends have left for school, we start class in the middle of September, beginning this year on Sept. 15 and next year even later, on Sept. 20. After this late start, we work pretty much non-stop from September until the middle of December, taking only a pitiful two-day break at Thanksgiving for a vacation that is barely long enough for us to catch our breath. In December, we return home each year for a Winter vacation that is consistently shorter than the holidays enjoyed at our peer institutions, and even that brief respite is burdened for Harvard students with the task of writing papers and the prospect of facing exams upon our return to Cambridge. When we finally take our exams in mid-to-late January, a month or more has often passed since we were last in class. As we all know, most efforts to explain this ridiculous system to friends and family at home are met with either laughter or sincere apologies.

It does not have to be this way. The committee’s recommendation outlines in detail a shift in the timing of fall semester exams from January to December, which is primarily made possible by beginning the year earlier in September. With the exception of our equally foolish friends at Princeton, the other American universities with whom we are regularly classed follow this kind of calendar, and we can follow their lead. The calendar proposed by the committee places the first day of classes immediately after Labor Day and includes a reading and an exam period that concludes a few days prior to Christmas.

Perhaps most importantly, this shift does not necessitate a drastic change in the structure of our reading and exam period. One of our great privileges as students at Harvard is our reading period, a luxury enjoyed at few other schools. Currently there are 12 reading days in the Fall semester; the new calendar guarantees between eight and 11 days depending upon the date of Labor Day each year. Every few years we will face the worst-case scenario of only eight reading days—but with the semester presumably fresher in our minds during that period, requiring less relearning, we should still be all right. Reading period is one of Harvard’s best institutions, and we can keep it and still finish the semester each year by Dec. 19 or Dec. 22 at the latest.

While Dec. 22 may seem pretty late for the end of the semester, consider the situation that we will face next year under our current calendar. In the 2004-2005 academic year, the last day of class in the fall semester will be Dec. 21, and after only 13 days of Winter vacation, reading period will begin on Jan. 4, 2005. Compare this to the situation that would exist under the newly proposed calendar: instead of fall classes, it would be fall semester exams that would be ending right around Dec. 21, after which we would head home for a real vacation without any work looming over us.

Granted, the proposed calendar does raise some questions in terms of the traditional year-opening exercises. Freshman Week, preceding the start of classes for first-years, provides a great chance to get somewhat acclimatized to Harvard; under the proposed calendar it would have to be pushed back into late August. The introductory first-year programs in the arts, urban service and the great outdoors, which began many of our careers at Harvard on happy notes, would also have to be moved back farther into the summer. These programs can still be accommodated, however, and given that towards the end of the summer each year many of us are looking forward to getting back to school, the earlier start date does not represent such a disadvantage for us.

While finishing the Fall semester before a longer and stress-free Winter vacation is the greatest improvement of the proposed calendar, there are additional benefits. The committee has also recommended that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving be included as a holiday and noted the possibility of taking the entire Thanksgiving week off from school, which the University administration should definitely explore when reviewing the committee’s report. The proposed calendar also includes an earlier start and a much earlier finish to the Spring semester, with exams finishing at least a week sooner in May. This extra time at the start of the Summer introduces a welcome degree of flexibility in our pursuit of jobs and internships during the vacation. And without exams in January, the prospect of a small, intensive period dedicated to a single class, project or activity is made possible. Though admittedly still indefinite in nature, a stand-alone January term, if adopted, would begin late enough that our Winter vacation would still last longer than it currently does; the term would then offer each student an opportunity to engage wholeheartedly in something that really interests him or her. Finally, the synchronization achieved across the reformed University calendar would greatly facilitate our cross-registration in advanced graduate school classes.

Harvard students often justifiably complain that our lives are overly stressful. The shift of Fall semester exams from January to December—a move that was favored by our peers by a two to one margin in a free-response online Undergraduate Council survey of more than 100 students carried out earlier this year—would provide a welcome stress-free block in the middle of the year. Especially as our school has become increasingly national and international, the importance of making the sometimes-long journey home with no accompanying work or conflicting commitments has increased for us. We should welcome the calendar changes proposed by the committee and head home in the future for a real break every Winter.

Thomas J. Wright ’06 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. He is one of five student members of the 19-person University Committee on Calendar Reform.