Wintersession—the 10 days of activities at the end of winter break—is a relatively new invention, dating back just a few years. Born out of the calendar change that moved fall semester finals to before winter break, Wintersession serves as the most open and accessible part of Harvard’s January term, or “J-term,” wedged between its two semesters. According to its website, Wintersession allows students “to explore a creative passion, to learn new ideas, to develop a new skill, or to delve into an extracurricular or career interest.” We applaud the work that the College has done in fostering a relaxed and welcoming environment for returning students to ease into the spring semester, but moving forward, we hope to see Wintersession become a more structured and formalized part of J-term.
Within just a few years, the frosty experiment has blossomed into a busy week filled by 140 programs, partly funded by over $20,000 in grants doled out from the UC. While this represents an impressive joint initiative on behalf of students and the College, there remains much room for improvement in years to come, beyond adding additional programs and funding. As more J-terms pass and as Wintersession becomes a more fully integrated part of the Harvard calendar, we would like to see a movement toward the more structured programming offered by January sessions like MIT’s Independent Activities Period. That programming includes a broad, diverse mix of for-credit and not-for-credit courses and lectures, a well-constructed example Harvard could learn from.
Of course, while we hope to see Wintersession grow and become a more integral part of J-term, we respect that the College has not made Wintersession mandatory. Students should spend their J-terms in the ways most productive to them—whether that is participating in formal programming on campus, traveling, or loafing in front of the television screen. Wintersession should continue to be an alternative rather than a mandate. It should be geared toward advancing Harvard’s liberal arts education, an integral component of which is the freedom given to students to chart their own academic paths.
To serve as an effective tool, however, Wintersession needs to have the institutional support necessary to ensure that it continues to grow. This means structural changes plus a commitment to funding—through an increased UC budget or direct grants—on behalf of the College administration so that students can use Wintersession as another tool for pursuing their academic interests. Improving Wintersession, like efforts to expand Harvard’s summer study abroad programs, represents a commitment to yearlong learning, one which we hope to see continue as Wintersession evolves over time.
Wintersession allows students to spend the last week of winter break pursuing their own interests and focusing on whatever they want to do, on or off campus. That is something we are delighted to see more of at Harvard.