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4-1-For What?

Changing the College's calendar would be a mistake, adding a J-Term would be worse

By The Crimson Staff

With reading period coming to a close today, it is particularly important that we consider what January means at Harvard, and how that value can be maintained for the benefit of students and professors. January is a time of year when, after break, we can enjoy a more leisurely reading and exam period than other schools get. Between Winter break and reading week, we enjoy plenty of time to prepare for exams and papers without having to dive into that work directly at the close of term, as happens in the Spring. However, the latest proposal to come from the Curricular Review Committee would change our January dramatically, changing it instead into a frenzied month of intense coursework that neither students nor professors would want. The “4-1-4” calendar, or “J-Term,” would add a special one-month-long course into the Harvard curriculum before the start of the Spring Term; it could conceivably also be used for outside research projects, such as senior theses, or travel, but the details of its structure have not yet been determined. While we are glad to know that the committee is willing to think outside the box and consider different models than Harvard’s own, this new schedule would be a mistake to implement at the College.

There is no way to fit a J-Term into Harvard’s schedule without forfeiting the late start, long reading period and intercession break that Harvard students currently enjoy. Shifting the fall semester earlier to allow for the J-Term would likely require the College’s year to start at least two weeks earlier. Even a longer winter break after finals, as tempting as it sounds, would mean sacrificing weeks of late summer and would require a shortened winter reading period—too hefty a price to pay.

And even if the calendar were rearranged to allow for finals before winter break in an effort to simplify student life, as now seems likely, a J-Term would only counteract any benefit by heaping on the additional stress—for both students and instructors—of planning for and taking additional classes. For most students, managing eight classes is hard enough; adding a ninth class in a 4-1-4 schedule would be too much. If the J-Term were structured so as to allow for the opportunity to do research or to study abroad, it would provide a tempting alternative to intense, month-long classes—but students could pursue these endeavors just as easily if given a longer winter break in place of a J-Term.

A long winter break wouldn’t cost a penny either, whereas another term might. The Independent Activities Period (IAP), Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s equivalent of the J-Term, is provided as an optional academic opportunity and a mandatory tuition cost covered by financial aid. With Harvard students’ tuition bills already among the highest in the country, an extra term like the IAP would drive costs even higher.

The bigger problem would be how to ensure that J-Term classes were of the same standards as term-time classes, and not regarded as a joke, as has been the case at other schools who have the 4-1-4 schedule. Unless required to, few professors would care to shoulder the extra workload of a month-long class, especially if planning it cut into the teaching demands of the Fall semester. Without attracting the quality classes that the true semesters do, a J-Term would likely offer cast-off courses—filling classrooms with dispirited junior professors forced to teach out of career considerations. The certain-to-be-unpopular alternative—forcing faculty members to alternate teaching J-Term courses—could overload professors and have a negative impact on the courses in the fall and spring term courses.

Some schools may have found it to work successfully, but it is a model that needs to be considered carefully for the needs of each academic community. Williams and Middlebury justify their J-Terms by offering many travel opportunities away from their secluded campuses and requiring students to take advantage of them. Cornell advertises the small class size and personal attention of their J-Term courses. But because we currently enjoy relatively smaller class sizes, a bustling urban campus and because our study abroad program is not prepared to take on the task of organizing so many students traveling aboard at one time—currently less than 100 students study abroad in a given term—Harvard’s J-Term would not provide such benefits to the student body.

Clearly the idea of more time for personal research without juggling four different classes in disparate subjects is a tempting idea, but adding an entire other month of class time onto a standard Harvard schedule is not the way to achieve it. The Curricular Review Committee should clearly look at ways to deepen the Harvard educational experience, but ones that allow for more thoughtful—not frenzied—study.

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