The January Experiment

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

“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