Faculty Debate J-term

Professors consider course options, grading scheme for January Term

For decades Harvard students have griped about taking their books home over winter break. And when a University committee recommended last year that all Harvard schools adopt the same calendar, it looked like their dream of a free winter vacation might come true.

The decision of whether to move exams before break will be voted on by the Faculty along with the other recommendations of the ongoing curricular review. But the Faculty will also vote, perhaps as early as this spring, on whether there should be a separate three-week January Term, or J-term, after break. The term, which would be held between the fall and spring semesters, would allow students to pursue a range of elective courses, several of which would include travel abroad.

While faculty are still brainstorming on how the term would work, the changes to the calendar, which could be implemented with or without the J-term, would mean 62 days of class for each semester, five to eight days of reading period and an eight-day exam period, according to a report issued last spring by the University committee on calendar reform chaired by Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba ’53. Were a J-term to be adopted, there may still be an intercession.

Earlier this fall, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby appointed Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Tom Conley as the chair of a committee to flesh out the details of a J-term. Last year, the committee on pedagogy decided to “hold off” on “getting into the nitty-gritty details of a proposal,” says Liz Cohen, Jones professor of American Studies and co-chair of the pedagogy committee.

Conley says that the committee will not argue for or against the creation of a J-term, but rather discuss how one could be implemented. “Whatever propositions we make, those propositions will not be made any way to argue for a change in the calendar,” he says. “It will only take place if the calendar takes place.”


In a Crimson poll of 391 undergraduates conducted in October, 77 percent of students said they would be in favor of moving exams before break, while 55 percent of those in favor said they would support a J-term.

Kirby said in an interview in October that the ultimate decision of whether to have a J-term rests not with the Faculty who will debate it this spring, but with Harvard’s Governing Boards. “If the Faculty of Arts and Sciences determined that in order to have the best possible curriculum we would have to go to a different structure of the academic year...the governing boards would determine the beginning, end, and date of commencement,” he said.

While no formal recommendations have been made as to how a J-term—which was first recommended in last year’s Report on the Harvard College Curricular Review—would work, many faculty contacted for this article were highly critical of the idea.

“I would say that [the] most critical issue is whether [the J-term] will be something serious or something Mickey Mouse,” says Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53. “I feel that it will greatly be the latter. Harvard is already easy enough. We don’t need more of this.”

Baird Professor of Science Gary J. Feldman says he doesn’t think a J-term would be the best use of students’ time. “The cons of changing the system, and a lot of faculty are concerned about this, is that this reduces time where students have to prepare for exams,” he says.

And Professor of the History of Science Everett I. Mendelsohn says students could get bogged down with all the choices.

“My gut feeling is that the variety of potentials is so great that most people will not do anything,” he says.

But whether or not faculty rally behind the J-term proposal, some say it is in the cards. “I see it as destiny,” Conley says. “I see the University moving in that direction, but also a lot of reticence to it, just because people are used to the current academic rhythms.”