In March 2004, Harvard’s Calendar Reform Committee released a report recommending that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences move exams to before winter break. Gone would be the days of returning to campus for final exams barely a day after the ball dropped for the new year. Instead, FAS would allow for 62 days of classes each semester, five to eight days of reading period, and eight days for exams. It was suggested the longer winter break this schedule opened up could potentially house its own mini-term.
A NEW CALENDAR
When the University Calendar Committee first convened to discuss a potential calendar change, the Harvard community had mixed feelings about incorporating a January term into the schedule. In a Crimson poll of 391 undergrads in October 2004, 77 percent of students said they would be in favor of moving exams before break, but the faculty was divided.
Faculty members who opposed January term worried that students wouldn’t have enough time to digest course material with a shortened fall semester, while those in favor believed that a more concise schedule would encourage students to be more diligent with their academics throughout the semester. January term supporters also argued that a “real break” free of preparation for upcoming assessments would give students time for much-needed rest and lead to improved mental health.
In January 2008, the University voted to proceed with their new schedule proposition, which would be effective in the 2009-2010 calendar year. This meant the advent of a January term, as well as a school year that started and ended earlier. The new calendar left plans for January unclear, to be determined individually by each school, and many FAS faculty and administrators worried about whether the time would be put to constructive use.
“I would say that [the] most critical issue is whether [January term] will be something serious or something Mickey Mouse,” Kenan Professor of government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 told The Crimson in 2004. Mansfield’s own opinion was that the term would become the latter. “Harvard is already easy enough. We don’t need more of this.”
Much Ado about January
Peer colleges like MIT and Williams set the precedent for developing January programming. MIT’s optional 4-week Independent Activities Period offers around 600 non-credit courses taught by alumni, faculty, and student groups and 100 for-credit faculty-led courses, as well as time for students to engage in internships or travel opportunities. Winter study is mandatory at Williams, which makes January a time for students to take accelerated, for-credit classes.
But Harvard’s program for January would differ from its two predecessors. Tom Conley, visual and environmental studies and romance languages and literatures professor and Kirkland House master, chaired a 2004 committee tasked with designing a potential January term for the College in the event that the new calendar was adopted.
“Our J-term [plan] had students going to centers and sites all over the world, from Beijing to Dakar, from Santiago to Mumbai; staying at home to do inventive and concentrated film analysis; language study; preparatory work for dissertations; trips to archives,” etc. Conley wrote to The Crimson in an email. He wrote that the University welcomed the committee’s report, but ultimately could not entertain many of its recommendations because of unexpected financial constraints.
In April 2009, less than a year before the first January term, the administration announced that after the 2008 economic crisis the College would not offer any winter programs. Only varsity athletes, thesis writers, and international students with demonstrated need would be allowed to stay on campus between the semesters.
This damper on the vision of a lively January campus lasted for only one year. In April 2010 the College announced that in a new seven to 10 day period before the beginning of the 2011 spring semester, all students would be welcome on campus and student groups would have the chance to host activities. They called this mini version of J-term Optional Winter Activities Week (OWAW).
OWAW and its 100 programs hinted at an evolution toward a more structured J-term. Programming grew to 140 offerings in January 2012 as the period was renamed Wintersession, and Wintersession 2013 maintained that same number of programs. In addition to student groups, many of Harvard’s associations and offices sponsored original programming during January.
The Wintersession Solution
This coming January, Wintersession will proceed similarly to past years with unique programming by both student groups and Harvard offices. Arts @ 29 Garden will offer a seven-hour per day seminar called “Activist to Craftivist” which simultaneously explores “the philosophy behind a knit and stitch,” and its influence on basketball, while the computer science class “Intensive Discrete Mathematics” will cover some of the material from Computer Science 20 necessary for higher level CS courses. Student initiated offerings this January include Music Education Week at the Quad Studios, the Harvard Outing Club’s Cabin ski trip to New Hampshire, workshops in spoken word poetry, making handmade mugs, education reform, and crash courses in quantitative finance and origami.
Whether interested in Wintersession activities or not, students are using January for many different purposes—traveling, staying home, preparing summer applications, studying for non-Harvard assessments—and many students appreciate the discretionary nature of this time.
Preetha Hebbar ’14, a returning board member of Wintersession’s Harvard Wellness Conference and inactive Crimson editorial writer, believes that the structure of Wintersession perfectly suits the nature of her conference by providing time and space for reflection. “A lot of what we talk about is how environment influences the way that students shape their stresses and shape their lives here,” Hebbar explains. “To be on campus and dealing with those problems is really helpful.”
Other students agree that J-term is a time to take a break from the craziness of campus. “I’m not interested in taking classes over J-term, because this is my time for vacation,” says Gabriella R. Herrera ’15 bluntly. “Why am I going to come back and take classes?”
Vanessa D. L. C. Martinez ’15 feels the same way, but understands the potential appeal if courses were to be offered for concentration or Gen-Ed credit. “I feel like the benefit [of being on campus] would have to outweigh the cost,” she says, and she believes for-credit classes would be a big benefit. Martinez is skeptical about the popularity of not-for-credit offerings with a more exploratory purpose. “You can get freedom off of campus,” she says.
J-Term Moving Forward
While many students seem to be happy with J-term’s current flexibility, Conley would like to see more definition. “Students, as far as I can see, don’t want to be away from Harvard for too long, nor do they want simulation of unemployment to be at the core of the ‘January experience,’” he wrote.
Perhaps the answer lies in the “optional” clause written into the MIT Independent Activities Period, which provides flexibility not only in learning and teaching, but also in how students can take advantage of the time.
When asked how he would like to see J-term evolve in the coming years, Conley shared a simple wish. “I’d like to see it involve the ideas that we had proposed almost ten years ago.”
“I believe that the economic crisis really put a curfew on invention,” wrote Conley, noting that he saw little implementation of the Committee’s original proposals for a January term. But this dearth of programming need not endure. “We are now beginning to think creatively again,” he says.