As Winter Study draws to a close, our thoughts turn to many things. We think of cabbages, kings, caffeine. We wonder, perhaps, why we’ve chosen to come to a school in rural Massachusetts instead of a sunny haven like Birmingham-Southern. If we get beyond that question, we might even wonder why we’ve chosen to spend our young lives in a windowless, basement office.
It’s the fallout protection, really, that draws us to the basement, and we spend longer down here during the month of January than during any other month of the year. There are two main reasons for this. First, our new editorial board took over two issues ago, and we’re all still learning. Second, it’s winter study, and we have “time.”
And that brings us to one of the things we wonder most about during Winter Study, namely, the institution of Winter Study itself. It seems as much a tradition as cute baby pictures at fall a capella concerts and witty references in Williamstheatre plays to previous productions for the Record to run an editorial about Winter Study, and although some traditions should be examined and questioned, others should be respected and perpetuated.
So we respect the tradition of questioning tradition by writing about Winter Study. What is the purpose of Winter Study? Does it succeed? Is it a necessary piece of our Williams experience, both valuable and defining? Or is it a month in which we waste each other’s time, get on each other’s nerves, and pay for it all?
Winter study is supposed to be a break from the stress of the regular semester. The courses are graded on a pass/fail basis to encourage us to try new things, to study things we might not try during the rest of the year. Ideally, it’s a time when we can relax, regroup, get reacquainted with our friends, and broaden the scope of our interests. It is a time of lower intensity on campus, but presumably the experience should be somewhat productive. It should at the very least be more beneficial for students than spending the extra few weeks at home. It’s a bit difficult to justify bringing 2,000 students to Williamstown in January just to offer the chance to socialize. As wonderful as it is to give more time to friendships, we expect more from the month than simply more movies and trips to the snack bar. If we’ve come to accept this concept of Winter Study as time to happily waste away, then we are denying ourselves opportunities to grow intellectually and culturally.
For some people, Winter Study is a huge success. Of course, many of those people are either off campus or engaged in some sort of self-directed independent study. For these people, Winter Study represents a raw, month-long block of potential. For others, Winter Study is a black hole, consuming indiscriminately motivation, hope and fulfillment. For most of us, this month lies somewhere in between.
Many of us find ourselves in our second and third-choice classes. Many of us are preoccupied with sports and activities and don’t take our classes as seriously as we do those during the rest of the year. This can only be a point of frustration for professors, who must prepare for a winter study course the same way they prepare for a normal class, but without the expectation of student commitment to the course. If we are to take a mid-winter respite from the typical rigors of academics, professors can hardly be expected to treasure the opportunity to try to teach us while we relax.
Lack of interest and effort in many of the offered courses can make Winter Study unpleasant for professors and students alike in a class. When many students choose courses based upon meeting times and the absence of a required paper, it is easy to see why many professors might prefer to pursue their own research rather than teach a winter study course. In fact, given the option of teaching a Winter Study class or a full semester class, many professors opt for the semester course, despite the obviously greater work load. Winter Study classes are generally regarded as less academically valuable than semester courses. When professors are reluctant to teach the courses, non-professors must fill the instructors’ roles. Regrettably, this system results in courses of unpredictable quality. Many classes fall desperately below the standard Williams sets for itself during the semester.
What we need is a way to increase the importance of the Winter Study class to the Winter Study experience, without jeopardizing the slower pace and spirit of exploration that the month is supposed to foster. One possible suggestion of how to attain this balance would be to allow professors or students the opportunity to designate a Winter Study course as graded. Theoretically, graded Winter Study courses would self-select for motivated and interested students. This way, both students and faculty who wished to take Winter Study classes seriously could do just that. There could also be classes that remain designated pass/fail for those who want a more relaxed experience. Perhaps the College could require that a certain number (two?) of Winter Study classes be taken for a grade, and allow the others to be taken pass/fail. Presumably students would consider seriously their level of interest in the material of a course they planned to take for a grade, and avoid choosing a class merely for its scheduling benefits or anticipated workload.
By suggesting grading over Winter Study, we do not wish to transform Winter Study. Winter Study should be less academically rigorous than the regular semester. There should be time for skiing, sleeping, thinking and dancing. If we are going to be taking classes at all, however, they should be good and interesting classes. They should be worth our time and worth the time of our instructors. Allowing for some courses to be graded seems a reasonable attempt toward achieving that goal.