Give Me a Break

Student complaints over lack of J-term structure are unjustified

When I opened Monday’s email from Dean Michael D. Smith and Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds, entitled “January Experience Announcement,” I breathed a deep sigh of relief. The College, at least this year, has decided not to offer any classes or organized internships during the new five-week stretch, instead allowing students to plan their own breaks. Harvard students will finally get that long January vacation that their friends at other colleges have always taunted them with.

Yet, predictably, many students are crying foul at this announcement as a missed opportunity for further College-directed programming opportunities. A stress-free break—what seemed for me to be the crown jewel of calendar reform—has irrationally become, in the eyes of my peers, yet another epic administrative blunder.

Five weeks of unstructured break may indeed seem excessive; many lament the lack of guidance offered in terms of how to spend this time. This criticism, however, illustrates the severe level to which Harvard students seem to have internalized the need for an unwaveringly structured and regimented college experience. I personally find it liberating to have the ability to determine on my own how to spend the break, without the pressure of official Harvard suggestions or guidance looming over my decision-making process. If organized alternatives had been offered, the unhealthful Harvard climate of always keeping up with our stressed-out peers would arguably invade this J-term, just as it does everything else.

After all, there is no such thing as mere “guidance” offered by the College—if the school had offered suggestions as to how to spend the five weeks of break, they would implicitly have become mandatory directives, thanks to Harvard’s competitive nature. If Harvard had “recommended” meaningful travel, non-traditional electives, or internships, a student who might otherwise have cried “Sweet reprieve!” at the thought of a mental-health vacation would have felt obliged to comply with such recommendations out of guilt.

Indeed, while offering other academic offerings and experiences would have been useful and fun, an unfavorable rift would have divided those who chose to take advantage of such extra options and those who decided to stay home; a negative stigma of perceived laziness would persist around those who chose to enjoy a long, stress-free break instead of opting for a J-term course. Students should not be punished (materially or psychologically) for wanting to enjoy a long break. The deans’ letter’s mere mention of using this January time as a potential means of “making connections” is cringe-worthy enough.

On a practical level, adding more structure to the January Experience seems implausible and contradictory to the College’s financial-aid initiatives. Would non-traditional electives be tuition-free? Would Harvard subsidize exploratory “see-the-world” travel just for the sake of it? Without a dramatic funding increase to finance such holistic January experiences, students on financial aid would largely be shut out; to them it might seem more purposeful—and necessary—to stay home and find a temporary job than to rack up more loans for jet-setting and cooking classes. In the current economic climate, the College can’t afford to fund a JanEx, and the average financial-aid student can’t either.

As such, I cautiously applaud the deans’ decision to remain hands-off. Five stress-free, unstructured weeks of time without impending exams around the corner is an exhilarating idea and a welcome departure from the old calendar. The only unfortunate part of the move not to offer classes is that it comes merely as a result of the financial crisis and not out of genuine administrative concern for students’ mental health. The perfect five-week break should be self-determined and uncompetitive—even if the College is able one day to devote money to hashing out details, official recommendations, and a structure for this January break, it should continue instead to leave it up to the students.

James A. McFadden ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Lowell House.