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Bringing January to Term

The clock is ticking for 2012

By The Crimson Staff

In a recent faculty meeting, Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds announced that steps were being taken to reform January Term, partly in response to survey results that indicated low student participation and mixed student satisfaction. Hammonds stated that Optional Winter Activities Week would officially be extended from eight to ten days “in order to avoid reopening the Houses on a weekend day” and that additional consideration was being given to allowing students with internships and independent projects to remain on campus and opening more House dining halls during the break. In addition, one of the priorities of this review would include renaming the program, possibly Optional January Term.

While the College’s decision to re-examine and reform January Term is a step in the right direction, there is greater room for improvement than these half-hearted proposals would suggest. At present, it seems like the administration is torn between a desire to improve programming during OWAW and a reluctance to grant the funding that would be necessary for these improvements. To make the best use of resources, the administration should decide whether to take OWAW in the same direction as MIT’s program-intensive Independent Activities Period—or to leave the time open for students to focus on their own independent, self-initiated endeavors, and make funding resources available for these. Either way, more decisive action needs to be taken in the next few months to provide students and faculty with adequate time to plan their schedules for January 2012.

The underlying issue with this year’s OWAW was its failure to draw students back to campus. Of the students who completed the winter break survey, 37 percent said they had returned to campus for OWAW. Survey results indicated that approximately 70 percent of polled students would participate in credited courses had they been available for the time period. While Associate Dean and Senior Adviser to the Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin II, stated that he would like to determine future funding and programming based on student participation—in his words, students “voting with their feet”—it is impossible to truly gauge the breadth of student interest unless a wider variety of programs become available during the time. This much is clear; survey results and the success of this year’s programs indicate a surplus of student interest and a deficit of student opportunity.

The reality is that simple changes, like opening more dining halls and extending the program by two days, are not an alternative to the more difficult, costly change of increasing substantive programming. The underlying issues with the current January program, e.g. loneliness and lack of structured activity, are connected. Students need a compelling reason to return to campus, be it a structured course, an independent internship or volunteer opportunity, or a series of day trips and cultural activities, and if more students stayed on campus then loneliness would decrease. Yes, students who stayed on campus over winter break often reported that the trek to Annenberg often discouraged them from eating there altogether—but eating in one’s House is only truly beneficial if there are a critical mass of people to form a J-term community.

We encourage the administration to consider changes to the January Term sooner rather than later. While we support the Undergraduate Council for pushing for more faculty involvement with OWAW activities on the behalf of the student body, it is necessary to stress how time sensitive this matter is. Early notice would be helpful not only to students but also to faculty members, whose prominent reputations often ensure that their schedules are overbooked months beforehand. The push towards more faculty-led programming will ultimately go to waste if faculty members have too little time to plan such programs.  Last year, an announcement regarding the dates of winter break was sent out in early April. Considering we are fast encroaching on this deadline, it is advisable for the administration to take action as quickly as possible.

In addition, information regarding January activities should be more widely publicized, preferably in one convenient central location. Many students reported either being unaware of OWAW opportunities or finding out about programs after application deadlines had passed. Additional programming or funding will be irrelevant if students are not given the information to access these resources. While we acknowledge that some of this miscommunication may have been due to the experimental nature of this first OWAW, it does not change the fact that this is a serious issue that deserves to be addressed.

Winter break should be an opportunity for students to relax and unwind, albeit in a productive way, and take advantage of the campus resources they might not have time for during the hectic fall or spring terms. To truly make this program a success, the administration should take concrete steps towards determining what the program can realistically provide and act quickly to allow students and faculty adequate opportunity to plan their time.

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