Editorial: Making J-Term Work

The Editorial Board reacts to the college's decision not to hold J-Term this winter by weighing the difficulties posed to staff against the value of winter programming for campus life.

January Term (J-Term) as we know it is no more. The Ad Hoc Committee to Evaluate the January Term (J-Comm) delivered a report that was largely inconclusive on whether or not J-Term should continue, but stated that a solution to the various problems presented by J-term would need to be found before the program was approved. Most important of those problems was the massive logistical challenge the program posed to staff. Administrative staff generally use the winter term to support the transition between semesters, and the added workload of a miniature semester during the month is excessive. As a result, according to J-Comm’s survey, 26 percent of staff respondents answered “definitely not” when asked whether J-Term should continue in the future, the largest fraction out of any group.

This news is therefore perhaps saddest for students, over half of whom responded “definitely yes” when asked the same question. For students, the reasons for loving J-Term and wanting it to continue in some form were myriad: many of us liked the intensive class format, enjoyed the extra-long break — which could be spent either on campus or off — and appreciated the opportunity to take three classes in the spring semester. J-Term, in short, created a type of flexibility in student schedules that is impossible to reproduce within a strict two-semester system — it provided a boon to our mental health throughout the academic year.

While J-Term as it has been run for the past two years is likely not to come back anytime soon, it is also certain that on-campus activities during the winter break are positive for the student body. In the past, the Interterm program, which offered non-credit classes on everything from “Thai Cooking” to “Financial Bootcamps,” offered an experience less strenuous for academic staff, while still providing students with learning opportunities. However, J-Comm warned against a simple return to this programming. Positive memories of these experiences, the committee explained, are possibly simply reflections of the “pandemic’s collective trauma,” and “the Siren Song of Interterm is best left unheard.” However, the possibility of relatively unstructured programming with some of the same goals as those of Interterm, like preparing students for careers or teaching them skills that could be useful in further classes for a department, is too enticing to leave as a failed experiment.

As a 2019 report on Interterm suggests, it has been a difficult program to administer due to inconsistent student participation and burnout in the aftermath of the fall semester. However, over the last few years, winter break has been a week longer than it was in 2019, and that extra time in between semesters is valuable in enabling students to engage more fully with Interterm programming.

Winter term should be a time where experimentation is possible across campus. Faculty who are interested in providing winter opportunities for students — whether workshops for programs relevant to their field of study or field trips and other activities in the area — should be able to recruit students and apply for funding through an appropriate organization like the Center for Community Engagement or the Office of Student Affairs. These offices already administrate research programs through Gregory S. Call funding and work with the Loeb Center to offer opportunities like the college’s various career treks — longer versions of which could also be interesting to offer over January, especially if they could be hosted with local industries like agriculture and higher education.

Beyond just faculty-headed programs, the winter term is a perfect time for student organizations wishing to host their own opportunities. Any organization or group of students could apply for funding to host a winter-long book club, reading group, speaker series, or skill-based workshop. Then, students who want to engage more with their non-academic extracurriculars would be able to commit more time to them between terms in much the same way that athletes practice over winter or student researchers to further their projects.

The value of winter programming is manifold. The different kind of academic experience provided by a single intensive class is a valuable one in contrast to the semester’s workload — especially given the free time afforded by staying on campus over January. That free time speaks to a kind of camaraderie experienced by the suddenly-smaller campus. Friend groups switch around and coalesce in the smaller, quieter Val, and the compactness of our winter worlds makes this campus feel truly tight-knit in a way it can’t in the semester.

It is true that it will always be a logistical challenge to support any number of students on campus over the January term. As J-Comm’s report says, the college “isn’t staffed or  budgeted for the 24/7/365 operations which it has grown into.” Until this essential issue of proper operational preparation is solved, any activities beyond those of the semesters themselves will be prohibitively difficult. The potential of student-led programming, among the other opportunities that various members of the college community want to explore, is so high that finding a solution to those questions is imperative. Winter term is too valuable to let fall away due to these unresolved concerns, and every effort should be made by every party to make winter programming a reality.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 20; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0).