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'J' Is for Joke

A January term isn't as appealing as it sounds

By Aaron S. Ross

“What does it mean to be an educated man or woman?” Dillon Professor of International Affairs Jorge I. Domínguez asked at a Nov. 2002 panel on the Core curriculum. And under the all-encompassing banner of the curricular review, Harvard is also asking questions regarding the kind of calendar best suited for creating educated men and women. The steering committee on the curricular review has proposed the creation of a “January term,” or “J-term,” in which students take only one class in a more relaxed atmosphere. Speaking to Kirkland House students this February, Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 asked, “Does this pedagogical possibility excite people?”

It should not. As Gross himself admits, it’s unclear how many students would actually find themselves in a classroom at all during the month of January. He said students could use the J-term for internships or traveling abroad, instead of taking a class. In addition, seniors could spend the time working on their theses or worrying about upcoming life in the real world. Presumably, job-hunting seniors would fill their days scouring “Help Wanted” ads and making phone calls, spending sleepless nights preparing for high-pressure interviews—not exactly a relaxing break from Harvard.

And what of the brave few who sign up for class, despite College-encouraged opportunities to do something less academic? The very relaxed atmosphere J-term advocates tout could make it more difficult for students to focus on classwork. The culture of a J-term inherently threatens to water down the classes offered.

For example at Middlebury College, where a 36-year-old J-term is currently under scrutiny, the faculty delicately characterize the problem as “J-term culture,” which is “defined by student expectations of low workload.” Granted, this culture suits some Middlebury professors just fine; in a Jan. 26 Crimson op-ed, Middlebury professor Murray Dry endorsed his school’s winter term as “an academic change of pace.”

But Harvard students and professors already have a January “change of pace”: the winter reading and exam periods, followed by intersession. Even so, it is true that adding the J-term would probably mean even less work—so why wouldn’t Harvard students, following a common cause with their peers everywhere, jump to accept the proposal?

Unfortunately, this free time comes straight out of summer vacation. At a March 1 meeting with students in Currier House, Gross proposed starting classes before Labor Day to make room for the J-term. This would make Harvard summers the briefest in the country, disrupting internships, travel or summer work—all simply to make room for the same kinds of internships, travel or work during January, when fewer are available to college students. Vacation simply cannot be put to the same good use in January with internships less comprehensive, European getaways not as sunny, jobs an impossibility and class opportunities that are clearly a joke.

Students should realize that the current calendar treats them well and tell Gross and the steering committee that they would rather keep Harvard’s schedule, quirky as it is, than give up long summers. The way things stand is a pedagogical reality that is exciting enough.

Aaron S. Ross ’07, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Hollis Hall.

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