College Council Proposes Shortened Spring Semester
Issue   |   Wed, 02/24/2016 - 00:56

Chair of the college council and professor Nicola Courtright introduced the proposal to shorten the college’s spring semester during the Association of Amherst Students meeting on Monday, Feb. 22.

The new proposed calendar would decrease the length of future spring semesters from 14 to 13 weeks, which would match the length of fall semester. The proposal includes an extension of reading period in the spring to a minimum of four days, three potential make-up days for weather emergencies or campus-wide events such as the day of dialogue and a full three-week interterm session.

The senators voted in a straw poll on the proposal. 14 members voted in favor of shortening the spring semester to 13 weeks, with none opposed and four undecided by the time of poll.

Courtright, a professor of art history, said that many faculty members and particularly science professors have been unsatisfied with the short duration of interterm in the last several years. Some professors felt that they did not have enough time for themselves or for students to finish laboratory or other research-based projects. Around a year ago, professors proposed that interterm always remain three weeks long, with the semester starting on the following Monday.

“What this meant, however, was new pressure on the spring semester,” Courtright said, adding that the academic year could not extend later into May because commencement dates could not be rescheduled. “With a late interterm and a 14-week semester, [there would be] probably two days of reading period, which was the way [it was] last year.”

Courtright cited examples of other institutions with 13-week semesters, such as Yale University, to explain the prevalence of this calendar system. She also said that as a result of having a short spring semester reading period, students and faculty have suffered higher stress around finals period at the end of the semester.

According to Courtright, any plan to extend reading period would not be for students to return home early, but rather to take advantage of resources at the college to finish their work and to meet with professors during the extra time. Professors would be expected to hold additional office hours or review sessions during the extended reading period.

“We thought of it as a period of review, reflection and academic production,” Courtright said. “It would allow people to make the most of what had happened during all their courses.”

Senator Tasha Kim ’18, the sole member of the college council who voted against the proposal during the council meeting, raised the concerns that she had during the initial council vote.

“We come to school, we pay to come to Amherst for classroom instruction and I felt like self-reflection was something that I could be doing on my own time,” Kim said, emphasizing the high cost of lost classroom instruction time. “Also, if we take away a week of school, we’re probably never going to get that back. It’ll be a lot harder to bring back more school once professors have adjusted to teaching less … It’s just really important to understand that this is going to be a very permanent change.”

Courtright previously confirmed that such a change to the spring semester schedule would not alter tuition costs for students.

“I really think that, done well, this extra week of reflection or reading period … really gets more at the goals of the college than just an extra week of class,” senator Sam Keaser ’17E said in response. “College is both a place to learn and also a place to reflect upon what we’ve learned and actually interiorize it.”

While most senators favored the proposal, a majority of their feedback for Courtright concerned the details of having a longer reading period.

“I’m having a hard time believing that professors are going to compromise all of the schoolwork,” senator Maeve McNamara ’19 said. “Especially for science or math courses, where curriculum carries over, and you need prerequisite knowledge for the course.” She said that professors would try to cover the same load of material in the shortened time, rather than to eliminate a week of material.

Another topic of discussion was the idea of adding programming to the extra days of reading period, whether through organized events or through music and theater and dance department performances, to ensure that students stay on campus for reading period. AAS communications director Bonnie Drake ’17 said that extra programming adds stress to students facing finals period and suggested providing additional study or relaxation spaces stocked with food instead.

The college council is in charge of handling the academic calendar, but the idea of a 13-week spring semester has not yet reached a faculty vote because it has not been approved by the Committee on Educational Policy, which is discussing the idea of spring semester being 13 and a half weeks long instead.

“Essentially, there are disagreements between the CEP and the college council on how to proceed,” Keaser, also a member of the Committee on Educational Policy, said. “People really just want more time to discuss the question.”