Give Me A Break

The College should not have an “optional” winter session

Just under a year ago, Harvard announced that it would change its calendar. For undergraduates, the reason was clear: We deserve a proper winter break, without January exams looming, and long enough for international students to go home for the holidays. Yet, when the new calendar takes effect in the fall of 2009, undergraduates will get just 13 days off for winter break—fewer than under the current calendar. This is disappointing. In an e-mail last May, interim University President Derek C. Bok promised students that, under the new calendar, “students would finish fall term exams before winter vacation, allowing for a longer and less stressful break.” That promise, it seems, is to be left unfulfilled.

Under most circumstances, offering choices to students is a good thing. But the options suggested by The Crimson Staff for the new “J-term” are ill-advised. By offering classes—whether or not they will count for transcript credit—Harvard will incentivize students’ returning after less than two weeks of break. The same students who already feel guilty for not studying during the holidays—even with 11 days of post-Christmas reading period on the horizon—will feel plenty of pressure not to take a five-week winter break. This is especially the case given the resumé-mania that dominates many students’ lives during December and January, when firms launch their summer internship recruiting. There will be a substantial amount of pressure on students to “do something” with their winter session—too many will opt for the too-short 13-day winter break.

Even if undergraduates choose the beach over their books for the mini-term, an optional seminar program is misguided. Resources from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ already-stretched budget could certainly be better directed elsewhere than to an undersubscribed quasi-academic program. And given how slow and painful the development of the General Education curriculum has been, it hardly makes sense to ask the Faculty to simultaneously create yet another set of new classes.

Either students will hurt in the short-term by the pressure not to take a break, or else they will be harmed in the long-term by a program that wastes time, energy, and cash.

The new calendar should instead mandate a four- or five-week break, during which students would be entirely free to decide what to do with their time—be it travel, get an internship, or just relax at home—except return to campus for class. Students who wish to remain on campus should, of course, be allowed to do so, just as they are presently permitted stay through winter break. We hope that Harvard will provide new funding for travel during the break, and also that undergraduates will take a real, much-needed break during the holidays.

Adam Goldenberg ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Melissa Quino McCreery ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a chemistry and physics concentrator in Quincy House.