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Today the Faculty will hear about a proposed new academic calendar which would move fall semester exams to before winter break and create a month-long term in January.
The calendar, which will be presented by the Curricular Review’s working group on pedagogy at the Faculty’s monthly meeting—within a larger presentation on the current progress of the curricular review—would put Harvard on what is known as a “4-1-4” schedule.
Most of the other Ivies operate on a two-term system—with first semester exams before the holidays—but schools such as Cornell, MIT and Williams, which currently use the 4-1-4 calendar, offer their students the opportunity to take short, intense classes, work on research projects, and participate in artistic programs during a January term.
“I think it’s a very interesting idea and its certainly something we should examine,” said Richard M. Losick, professor of molecular and cellular biology and co-chair of the working group on pedagogy. “There are many creative ways such a block of time could be used.”
The new calendar would synchronize the Faculty of Arts and Science’s schedule with most of the University’s other schools, whose students are registering for spring classes when undergraduates are taking their fall exams.
Student opinion is split over the idea of having exams before break. In a poll of 363 undergraduates conducted by The Crimson last week, 45 percent said finals should be given before the holidays, while 40 percent said that exams should not be moved.
But the poll, which was launched just as the 4-1-4 calendar was publicly proposed, did not ask about the new schedule.
According to Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies Jay M. Harris, the Faculty would be willing to give exams before break depending on specifics of the proposal, such as maintaining a reading period.
“In my class, for example, I give my last class on Dec. 15 and my exam on Jan. 24. There’s nobody on earth who’s going to defend that as a good thing,” Harris said.
And Jones Professor of American Studies Lizabeth Cohen, the other co-chair of the pedagogy committee, said revamping the calendar could also help coordinate the calendars of all 12 of Harvard’s schools, which now begin and end their terms at different times.
The Kennedy School of Government, the Law School and the School of Public Health already hold “Jan.-terms,” said Cohen, who added that the Design School and the Divinity School are also exploring the 4-1-4 option.
“The most important thing is that the semesters start together to facilitate faculty teaching in other schools and students, particularly grad students, cross-registering,” Cohen said. “What is not at all set is having a January term.”
But Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 said he wouldn’t support any changes that would affect either the length of the break between semesters or reading period.
“I rather like the long breaks between semesters that we have,” Mansfield said. “It gives time for refreshment. I preferred the time that reading period gives to look things over again, or even do them for the first time.”
The effect on term-time courses might also predispose professors against changing the calendar, according to Losick.
“Some faculty might be concerned that this would put even more of a teaching burden on them,” he said. “That’s something we have to look into, to make sure it doesn’t increase the teaching load for the faculty. There are pluses and minuses to doing this.”
Student leaders also expressed concerns about the new calendar.
Outgoing Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 said he would be in favor of changing the schedule and instituting a January term if the change had broad support and if it would not affect the length of summer vacation or reading period.
“The only way [a J-Term] will work is if there’s a lot of attention and financial and faculty resources devoted to it” Chopra said. “It also shouldn’t come at the expense of normal term-time courses.”
Any calendar restructuring should also facilitate Harvard students’ experiences with applying to summer jobs and internships, incoming council president Matthew W. Mahan ’05 said.
“One of the ultimate goals of this earlier shift, in my opinion, needs to be getting students out of spring exams far before June 1,” Mahan said. “We are put at a major disadvantage with internships and other employment opportunities, since most other colleges end their year in early May.”
Despite Chopra’s reservations about changing summer vacation, he recognized that the timing of Harvard’s summer break is atypical.
“There is no reason why we need to start halfway through September, especially given that most of our friends are back in school in late August,” he said.
Students at other schools with established January terms give the option good reviews.
Iken G. Joseph, a sophomore at Williams College, said he will take a 10-day trip to Nicaragua with a group of classmates next month to administer eye exams to that nation’s poor.
“It’s supposed to be where you pursue something you like,” he said of the January term. “I think it’s a pretty cool time just to unwind from the rigors of your normal semester.”
Marilyn Gomez, another Williams sophomore, agreed. She said she took a class focused on a style of modern painting during last year’s January term.
“Sometimes I just feel we move on too quickly,” she said of term-time courses. “So [the January session] was a nice change of pace.”
—Staff writer Joshua D. Gottlieb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Laura L. Krug can be reached at email@example.com.
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