The Calendar and Schedule Committee’s (CSC) Annual Report from the 2016-2017 academic year, available on the College’s website, recommends the consideration of major changes to the current academic calendar to address, in part, the CSC’s perception that semesters are too compressed. We disagree that semesters are too short and believe this argument is a misattribution of blame for students’ stress. Furthermore, we do not believe that a longer semester would reduce student stress by spreading the work over a longer time period; rather, it would exacerbate the problem by packing in more material, lengthening stressful periods and eliminating some of the College’s most valuable community-building traditions.
The report states that some CSC members feel that the College’s semesters “are quite compressed and stressful, both for students and faculty alike.” CSC then recommends consideration of at least 10 scheduling changes, including the elimination of Winter Carnival and Mountain Day, the shortening of Winter Study to two weeks, shortening the final exam period and changing the length and timing of various breaks.
This opinion, which seems to lack student input, highlights a problem with the CSC and with many administrative committees: While the CSC officially has three student seats available, none were filled in the 2016-2017 academic year per lack of interest. College Council should campaign more aggressively to fill open slots, sending follow-up emails to students if initial interest is lacking. If seats are still empty, CSC members could ask former student members of the committee to recommend new members. Students are stakeholders in the schedule process and their opinions are distinct from the faculty’s on this issue; as such, student input is invaluable to the conversation. Further, if this year’s CSC chooses to move forward with discussing any of the scheduling changes recommended by the report, it must seek wider student input. This input could come in various forms, including an open forum.
We also note that schools with similar schedules to the College’s 4-1-4 semester system, including Bates and Middlebury, have semesters similar in length and timing to ours, with the exception of our two-week spring break and June graduation.
The root problem of student anxiety is not that semesters are too short, or that we have too many opportunities to decompress – Mountain Day and Winter Carnival are valuable to students as time to spend together and to appreciate the Purple Valley, while Winter Study is constructive as a period of academic exploration. Claiming Williams Day is also a crucial community event which should not occur during Winter Study, when fewer students would likely attend. Instead of focusing on changing our semesters, then, we should focus on whether we can take better care of our students and set realistic academic expectations that allow them to work as hard and effectively as possible. Better communication between faculty and students about realistic expectations for course loads could start to address some concerns about student anxiety and academic balance without changing the schedule to eliminate breaks.
We value the chance to take time to decompress, which is why breaks such as fall reading period and spring break are important. There is also, then, value to the CSC’s proposal of a longer Thanksgiving break, which would better allow some students who live far from the College to go home. The two days of class on Thanksgiving week could potentially be made up by beginning the fall semester two days earlier. Additionally, it is worth considering shortening the time between spring finals and Commencement, which is held later at the College than at peer schools, to better accommodate students whose jobs start in late May or June.
It is clear that drastic changes to the academic calendar are controversial and would have widespread effects. The CSC should conduct a survey for students, faculty and staff to systematically evaluate opinions on the current academic calendar and on potential changes. Relying on a larger set of data, rather than anecdotal evidence of complaints, would allow the CSC and faculty to make improvements to the academic calendar that are responsive to the needs of students, faculty and staff – to the extent that any issues are related to the organization of the academic calendar.