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The January Experiment

With only one January Term down, J-Term’s future remains an open question

By Melody Y. Hu and Eric P. Newcomer, Crimson Staff Writers

Just four years ago, many members of the Harvard community anticipated the newly-developed January Term as an opportunity for undergraduates to participate in a range of creative and exciting programming on campus.

Many envisioned that the month-long period—which was created as a result of the University’s new unified calendar reform that moved the fall semester’s finals from late January to mid-December—would provide students with opportunities such as briefly studying a foreign language or going on a trip led by a faculty member.

Instead, the inaugural J-Term this past winter was closed to most of the student body. Only those with a “demonstrated need” to stay in residence—such as varsity athletes, thesis writers, and international students—were granted housing, resulting in what many considered to be a generally subdued campus atmosphere.

The striking disparity between the original vision for J-Term and how it transpired this January was largely a result of the College’s effort to limit expenditures after the financial crisis in 2008 led to University-wide budget reductions.

But the differences between this year’s J-Term and next year’s J-Term will be more subtle.

While housing will still be limited for much of January, administrators announced in April that all students will be allowed to come back to campus for the last week of the break, during which time many student groups will also have the opportunity to host their own activities.

Though the decision is considered by many to be a modest change, student leaders and administrators are confident that the addition of a week in which all students can be on campus is an “experimental” first step in the gradual evolution toward a more structured J-Term.


Despite the fact that the first J-Term fell short of the original expectations, administrators say the results of a student survey administered at the end of January suggest that the lack of organized programming did not necessarily ruin the J-Term experience for students.

Administrators point to the results of the survey—which was released to The Crimson—as an indication of “students’ overwhelming satisfaction” with the structure of last year’s J-Term, according to a message released to the College community by Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds.

According to the survey, which was e-mailed to all students, only 8 percent of people who stayed on campus said they felt that the lack of programming was a problem, though no statistics regarding desire for programming were provided for students who did not stay on campus.

Although the results show that many students were content with their J-Term experiences this year, especially given the College’s financial situation, many say they would still like to see on-campus opportunities for students.

“I was pretty disappointed when they told us via e-mail that last year’s J-Term was pretty successful just because people had their own individual [plans],” says Maxwell E. Storto ’11. “It’s good that [the College] had something, but I wish they did move faster towards faculty-organized programming.”

In interviews with The Crimson, students who stayed on and off campus say that they would have benefitted from structured activities.

“Pretty much everyone I know was bored during the whole time period,” says Mark A. Terrelonge ’10, who stayed on campus this January to conduct thesis research.

And some students who were off-campus said they found the break too long to spend entirely at home.

“We found that most [students], by about two to three weeks into it, went stir crazy and wanted to come back and do things on campus,” says Adams House Master John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67, based on his interactions with students.


Hammonds says that concerns raised by students and College administrators have led to the College’s decision to open up the campus a week earlier next January, which Undergraduate Council Vice President Eric N. Hysen ’11 refers to as an “incredible start” in the evolution of J-Term.

Many students reported that they faced a barrage of responsibilities when they returned to campus this year, such as summer application deadlines.

“We heard a lot from students and from various offices that [the beginning of the spring semester] was rushed,” Hammonds says. “It seemed like people needed a bit more time to come back in and settle down.”

In addition, many student groups felt that J-Term was a missed opportunity to organize their own activities.

“There’s a lot of potential that could be unleashed here if they said you have a month free to generate something really cool,” says Courtney L. Blair ’10, the former president of the International Relations Council.

In an effort to advocate for student-initiated programming during J-Term 2011, the UC and student group leaders submitted a position paper with detailed proposals for student group-organized activities.

While the College’s recent decision to open the campus earlier will not offer clubs the opportunity to host programs longer than a week, UC leadership says they see the decision as a positive step.

“I’m really happy that they opened it up for the last week of January because a lot of student groups really need that time. In general, it will help students to get back in the swing of things,” says UC President Johnny F. Bowman ’11. “I think they really responded to our requests regarding that.”

Bowman says the Council will continue to push for more reforms next year.

“We are still trying to get Harvard to open up more of January to accommodate more student groups,” Bowman says. “But given the budget, we understand there are restrictions.”


As the College considers its options for the future of J-Term, the proliferation of activities is partially limited by the unique residential structure of the College, administrators say.

“We are still in a resource constrained environment in the FAS and therefore the limiting factor for a full month-long winter break that involves extensive programming for all students is the cost of food and other infrastructure to support these activities.,” Hammonds says.

Hammonds, a former MIT faculty member, says she has extensively studied the school’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) as a potential model for Harvard’s J-Term. Some students say they are envious of the wide array of programs and activities available to MIT students during the IAP, which began in 1971.

During January, MIT offers approximately 100 for-credit, faculty-led courses and over 600 non-credit courses, which can be taught by any member of the MIT community.

For example, a material science professor has led a wine-tasting seminar during IAP for over 30 years, according to MIT Associate Dean of Academic and Research Initiatives Michael Bergren.

“[MIT] felt it was worthwhile to give both students and faculty the opportunity to step outside the fairly rigorous demands of the academic year and do something that is a little off the beaten track,” Bergren says.

But in contrast to Harvard, where nearly all undergraduates live and dine on campus, the majority of MIT students do not eat in dining halls, which cuts down on operational costs during the period, says MIT Associate Dean of New Student Programming Elizabeth C. Young.

“[IAP] really isn’t costing MIT anything extra,” Young says.

Despite the financial barriers to the rapid development of an MIT-like program at Harvard, some student leaders and administrators remain optimistic that formal programming will eventually come to fruition.

Palfrey says he expects that the College will expand J-Term programming to include a variety of credit and non-credit opportunities as well as additional funding for student activities over the next three to four years.

Bowman, who meets with top administrators monthly, says that “a structured J-Term is certainly something that administrators are looking at.”

Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 says that many faculty members agree that there “is a wasted opportunity right now.”

But the final form of Harvard’s J-Term may not be determined for years to come.

MIT officials say that it will take time before Harvard’s J-Term program can define itself.

“Several years after its inception, IAP was considered an experiment,” Bergren says. “It’s cultural now, [but] we’ve got the benefit of four decades.”

Echoing Bergren’s comments, Hammonds says figuring out how J-Term can best work for Harvard will be a gradual process.

“We are still in the experimental mode,” she says. “I think we’ll have another year of thinking through what we would really like to see this evolve into in the future.”

—Danielle J. Kolin and Naveen N. Srivatsa contributed to the reporting of this article.

—Staff writer Melody Y. Hu can be reached at

—Staff writer Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at

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