Springing to Change Too Soon?

With variance in national holidays, school-wide events and commencement programming, the college’s academic calendar changes on a yearly basis. The length of each semester has always remained consistent — 13 weeks in the fall and 14 weeks in the spring — but it could be changed in the near future. College Council recently proposed shortening the spring semester to 13 weeks, for reasons such as aligning the college on a similar calendar with other elite institutions and allowing for consistency within the structure of interterm. This shortened semester would then lengthen the reading period in the spring up to seven days, although the number is not determined yet. While this proposal is well-intentioned, there are many potential complications inherent in this change.

This proposal operates under the assumption that professors will tailor their courses to fit into a 13-week-long semester. However, we wonder if all professors will actually be willing to eliminate some material from their current 14-week-long curriculum to accommodate the new calendar. In quantitative courses, many professors arrive at the end of the semester shy of their originally intended goal. These courses often build on each other, so it’s crucial to cover all the intended content so that students will be prepared for the course in the curriculum that follows. Additionally, many humanities based courses use the extra week in the spring semester to delve deeper into interesting topics. Many research based courses are restricted to the spring specifically to use the extra week of class time. By shortening the semester, professors will be forced to cram content into a shortened time frame, giving students even less time to fully grasp all of the material presented to them.

Another reason to reconsider the shortening of the semester is not only that it eliminates a week of our valuable classroom hours, but also a week of extracurricular activities. Most Amherst students are heavily involved in extracurricular activities, and to cut out a week of school means seven fewer days of playing sports with your team, singing or playing musical instruments with ensemble groups, or coordinating special events for the campus, to name a few. Extracurriculars are a key part of the Amherst experience, and it’s important to consider the cost, both monetary and personal, in losing a week of these foundational activities. The new proposal does not include any considerations for changes in tuition with the shortened length of the semester. While reading period days are valuable, classroom and extracurricular minutes are crucial to our time at Amherst, and it’s important that the additional value of a week be considered.

The proposal promises a longer reading period in order to fit a calendar in which the date of the commencement ceremony is planned and fixed years in advance. Some proponents of the 13-week-long spring semester have said reading period will promote more opportunity for studying as well as de-stressing and self-reflecting. These activities that promote self-care align with the college’s goal to shape Amherst students as well-balanced individuals, not just academically minded students. However, the extended reading period needs to also combat structural inefficiencies with the current reading period model. We need professors to be more available within this crucial time. And we wonder whether the extended reading period will provide value to all Amherst students. Since many humanities majors choose to go home and write their papers at the beginning of reading period, these students would essentially be trading a week of precious class time for a week spent at home. There are still many lingering questions as well as problems inherent in this shortened semester proposal, and the editorial board urges faculty and administrators to carefully consider these questions before approving any drastic changes to the academic calendar.