After watching our peers at Princeton trudge back to school for exams just hours after the confetti settled on the new year, Harvard students breathed a sigh of relief that we have J-term. Despite the uncertainty that preceded its implementation, the schedule change of two years ago, which moved exams to before Christmas and created a five-week winter break, J-term, has proved to be a good addition to the year. Likewise, Optional Winter Activities Week, while better than last year’s complete lack of programming, was a welcome addition to the year. However, the funds, direction, and general effort that the College puts into programs for students over their longer break must be increased. One week is not enough time to do anything substantive, and in the future we hope that OWAW is extended. For this, the onus is on the College.
OWAW should be looked upon as a time for students to take part in activities to which they would not normally be exposed during the school year. Thus, it is not enough to string together a week of one-time workshops, lectures, and outings, although these, especially trips into Boston, are certainly welcome. Students could and often do make time for these types of activities in their normal school schedule. Instead, the most useful January activities would be ones that are extended, and take a full week or more; although there were select courses offered in this manner this year, there could be more. An example of the ideal J-term project would be this year’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’s three-week student trip to Brazil, where Harvard students and Brazilian students were given a chance to study environmental engineering and urban planning together. Just as an eight-week summer spent attending sporadic events would less satisfactory than one spent in devotion to one project, for students who choose to spend J-term on a productive activity, a continuous, one or two-week engagement would be the best type of offering.
A cost-effective way to make this type of programming available would be for the College to encourage prominent faculty members to offer seminars during J-term. Indeed, faculty involvement in J-term this year seemed decidedly minimal. In order for its offerings to come close to the quality and quantity of that offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during their Independent Activitites period—which is often cited as an example of what Harvard is trying to create for its undergraduates—there needs to be more. Given that many such professors normally teach some of the largest courses at Harvard during the school year, learning from them in a more intimate setting would certainly appeal to many students. It could also make these professors far more accessible, giving them a chance to promote their classes and simultaneously inspire students.
Additionally, no matter how good J-term programming is, for students to be able to take advantage of it, it must be publicized enough in advance. An issue that many students faced this year was that they received knowledge of OWAW once they had already finalized their J-term or travel plans. It would be helpful for students to know of the January offerings earlier in the year so that they can work them into their holiday schedule without disrupting family or other existing plans. Some students might simply have wanted to spend January at home, and by no means should the University mandate participation in OWAW or in any J-term activities. Ultimately, the decision on how to spend one’s J-term should be at the students’ discretion, and taking away from this seems to serve no tangible purpose.
As this was the first time OWAW was offered, it would be unfair to judge the efficacy of the program based soley on this year’s results. Therefore, although OWAW did not attract as a significant portion of the student body to campus, this could be attributed to a variety of reasons such as a general lack of awareness of the program’s details. We are confident that over time, the popularity of OWAW will inevitably rise as its programs increase in number and become more appealing to students. In this vein, we encourage the University to supply the resources needed to help expand future OWAW offerings, allowing the program as a whole to properly flourish.