College Opts Not To Approve J-Term for January 2023

No for-credit classes will be offered in January 2023, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein told The Student. The decision follows the recommendation made by the Ad Hoc Committee to Evaluate the January Term, which identified a number of logistical and staffing issues with J-Term.

College Opts Not To Approve J-Term for January 2023
Following the recommendation of the Ad Hoc Committee to Evaluate the January Term, the college has decided not to offer for-credit classes in January 2023. Graphic courtesy of Nina Aagaard '26.

No for-credit January Term (J-Term) classes will be offered in January 2023, in accordance with the recommendation made by the Ad Hoc Committee to Evaluate the January Term, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein wrote in an email to The Student on Sept. 30.

The committee, which was made up of students, faculty, and staff, was charged earlier this year with conducting a comprehensive review of J-Term — which was held for the first time in 2021 and 2022 as a response to the pandemic — and considering whether J-Term should be continued moving forward. On May 1, the committee submitted its final report to the Committee on Educational Policy and the Committee of Six, recommending that the college not hold a J-Term with for-credit classes in January 2023 due to unresolved concerns surrounding logistics and J-Term’s heavy burden on staff.

As a result, college programming will be on a much smaller scale this upcoming January compared to the past two years. Students who are involved in winter sports, writing theses, or working on research, as well as international and other students who need to stay on campus, will be able to stay in Amherst. In addition, there will be a small number of other programs, wrote Epstein, who added that the list is currently being finalized.

Discussions are still ongoing regarding whether the college will bring J-Term back in a more permanent form in the future. “The decision will be made through the shared governance process with faculty, student, and staff input,” Epstein wrote. “Initial discussions will occur in the Committee on Educational Policy and the Faculty Executive Committee.”

Faculty initially voted to approve J-Term for the upcoming two academic years in the summer 2020, with its continuation beyond that to be determined at a later date. J-Term spanned four weeks and allowed students to take one class for credit that was equivalent to a full course taken during a regular semester. Only a few select classes were taught during the term.

With J-Term courses counting toward the four courses required of each faculty member in a year, and students only required to take three courses a semester during the 2020-2021 academic year, J-Term was introduced “both to alleviate pressure on faculty and students and to spread out the load of instruction and learning in a (mostly) online environment as well as to promote curricular revision and innovation,” according to the committee report, which The Student obtained from Epstein.

J-Term replaced previous years’ Interterm, which was a three-week period in which students were allowed to stay on campus to fulfill certain commitments such as sports training or senior research projects or to simply take time off to prepare for the spring semester. The college also offered some less formal, non-credit classes, such as “Thai Cooking” and “Financial Bootcamps.”

In late February 2022, the Ad Hoc Committee to Evaluate the January Term, referred to as J-Comm, was created to decide J-Term’s future. J-Comm focused its work in three primary areas: pedagogy, campus and student logistics, and resources and finances. In its report, the committee highlighted a number of key takeaways from its review of J-Term, including participants’ strong enthusiasm for the program, and faculty and staff’s divided views on its continuation.

Based on the college’s post-J-Term survey, a majority of participating faculty and students responded positively to the academic experience. Sixty-four percent of the faculty strongly agreed that the pedagogy was effective, while 79 percent of students who took a J-Term course wished to participate again in the future.

Despite the positive feedback from participants, there was a mixed reaction among faculty and staff, in general. Faculty members pointed out that the lack of time for a sufficient break as a result of the January classes would take a toll on both faculty and students’ mental health in the succeeding spring semester. Some were concerned it would become mandatory for them to teach in J-Term. Another major concern stemmed from the truncated structure of J-Term courses, which raised questions about their accreditation and grading systems.

In addition, 45 percent of staff said that J-Term’s timing forced unforeseen circumstances upon them, hindering their ability to prepare for the spring semester and recharge with family and friends. Administrative work that was normally done during the less hectic Interterm was harder to complete in 2022 and 2023.

“Unlike students or faculty, many staff found that J-Term’s potential benefits came at their cost, and they expressed frustration at not having autonomy in determining how and in what ways to support it,” the report stated, adding: “There was a pervasive sense [among staff] that J-Term–along with the extremely stressful working conditions over the last two years–were unsustainable.”

The committee did not offer a recommendation as to whether J-Term should become a regular part of the college’s calendar, only stressing that the concerns raised should be addressed in any future proposals, and that future iterations should be designed based on what the future will look like, and not on the pandemic-era conditions under which these first two iterations took place.

In interviews with The Student, students and professors also expressed mixed feelings about J-Term’s overall impact. Aoife McGuire ’24 took Professor of Psychology Matthew Schulkind’s “Intro to Psychology” in January 2021, and noted that it was fast-paced and hard to cram all of the content normally spread across a three-month semester into one month. However, she added that she still “learned a lot during J-Term” because she had to “absorb so much information.”

McGuire described enrolling for J-Term as very similar to regular enrollment. However, a class like “Intro to Psychology” — which is difficult to land a spot in during the typical school year — was easier to get in during J-Term.

Speaking on the decision not to continue the program this year, McGuire said she could understand where the committee was coming from, considering the logistic pressure the program placed on professors. At the same time, she maintained that it was an important resource for those, like international students, who “can’t go back home during the break.”

Karis Lee ’23, who participated in J-Term in both 2021 and 2022, also thought the courses provided a valuable opportunity to gain entry into popular classes, like “Intro to Psychology.”

“My last opportunity to actually take [“Intro to Psychology”] for the major was that J-Term course,” Lee said, “so it was really helpful for me because then I was able to have that as a prerequisite for the next set of courses that I could take.”

According to Lee, the psychology department “did a really good job” organizing the class so that the content would be “easily accessible online.” And the workload was manageable because she “only took one course during that time.”

In her second J-Term, Lee took “Critiquing the Critique as Studio Art Practice,” which she said was “more open-ended” and had longer hours. Lee added that despite “screen fatigue” from staring at her computer screen for long periods of time, her workload was “definitely manageable.”

“I think both were very different experiences, but both were good experiences,” she said.

Professor of Music Jeffers Engelhardt — who taught “Seminar in the Anthropology of Music: Voice” during J-Term 2021 and “Being Human in STEM” in 2022 — enjoyed both experiences. He thought the program had “many upsides” in terms of “community building” and, for the right kinds of courses, pedagogy and learning. “There’s a lot from my J-Term teaching that I’ve incorporated into regular courses,” he said. “Obviously, not all courses can work in J-Term, and that time is crucial for other kinds of work as well — faculty research and writing, student internships and work, resting and spending time with loved ones, letting the campus community breathe, etc.”

That said, it was clear to him that the ripple effects of J-Term were a significant burden on staff across the college. “January is one of the only times staff in different areas of the college can take time off without impacting their work, and can catch up on projects and preparations for the spring semester,” said Engelhardt.

Professor of Chemistry and Faculty Equity and Inclusion Officer Sheila Jaswal, who co-facilitated two virtual offerings of “Being Human in STEM” in both J-Terms, did so with the understanding that he was participating in a two-year pilot program that only came about due to the pandemic. “It was a great option to give students more flexibility during the uncertain 2020-2021 academic year,” said Jaswal. “I appreciated having the opportunity to experiment with a new format of an intensive course over just four weeks, with the guarantee that I could offer it twice.”

Jaswal would not have opted to teach in the January term again, however, especially for a “third straight year.”

“Teaching for three hours a day three times a week plus prep plus grading, plus coordinating with all of the faculty and peer facilitators across the sections, was barely sustainable,” Jaswal said. “In addition, it left me virtually no time to work with my four honors thesis students who were working full-time in the lab. Typically, J-Term is a welcome opportunity to focus solely on the lab’s research, so by missing that creative time and rolling straight into spring semester, my scholarship and my work-life balance took a significant hit.”

Engelhardt said he supports the decision to not offer J-Term courses this year despite enjoying his experience with J-Term in the past two years. “We live in a community here, and, although I, personally, have some relatively small regrets about J-Term not happening, it’s clear that it wasn’t sustainable with current staffing levels and campus culture, and I’m totally fine with that,” he said. “Beyond fine — supportive!”

Lee, on the other hand, thought the college should reconsider its decision. “I know people like the J-Term courses because they loosen up the workload a bit for the regular semester,” she said. “If you took one J-Term, you would earn four credit [hours] for the actual school semester.” In her opinion, conducting “a survey that gathers students’ opinions [is what] matters most.”