Faculty and students debate future end-of-year schedule

12 mins read

The fate of the college’s end-of-year schedule, a much-debated issue at the outset of the semester, has been sealed for the foreseeable future. A September 26 faculty meeting reversed a previously-approved proposal to shorten the end of the spring semester, and re-instituted the current system for the next two years. Past this point, however, much is uncertain.

The proposal that was accepted last spring would shorten by four days the amount of time available for Honors students to prepare for exams, and reduce the length of senior week by three days. Despite receiving faculty approval, the student body objected vociferously, not only to the proposal itself, but also to the absence of student viewpoints in the decision-making process. A student body-wide poll last spring showed that 90 percent of the student body opposed the schedule change.

The original schedule is now in place through 2016, and if no alternative proposal is approved in the next two years, the delayed schedule changes will come into effect beginning in 2017. Both faculty and students alike are searching for new options to avoid the implementation of fewer exam preparation and senior week days.

Craig Williamson, coordinator of the Honors program, has supported a plan to shorten spring classes by one week, making the spring semester equal in length to the fall semester at 13 weeks. According to his plan, the number of days available for Honors exam preparations and senior week would not change, and Commencement would still be moved a week earlier.

The proposal has not yet been officially voted on by the faculty, but it was not immediately accepted at the September 26 meeting. While Williamson says he is certainly open to other proposals, he is hesitant to support any attempt to shorten exam preparation time. He feels that reducing students’ preparation time is a bigger sacrifice than losing a week of faculty research or vacation.

“To me, what’s the big deal [for faculty]? I think we should give students as much time as we can give, if it seems to make life better and easier for students taking their exams, going through this sort of intellectual process. It’s part of an enormously important learning experience to which the students have committed,” said Williamson.

The notable decline in the number of Honors students in the past two years is a huge concern for Williamson. There may be multiple explanations for why this has been the case, but Chair and Professor of Theater Allen Kuharski, another vocal faculty member, has one reason: the faculty has become less active in promoting the Honors program. Indeed, Kuharski believes it is a “failure of the faculty.”

The key factor behind this development, in Kuharski’s view, is the college’s decision to stop hiring tenure-track professors for a four-year period beginning in 2009, a result of the financial crisis. He believes that choosing to hire professors on one- to three-year contracts has led to a greater percentage of faculty who do not have long-term roles with the college. These faculty, he believes, have little knowledge of the deep meaning of the college’s Honors program, and are not motivated to push students to join it. Moreover, he expressed that students are probably less likely to devote themselves to professors who are only around in the short term.

While Kuharski believes the decision to temporarily stop hiring tenure-track faculty members was “catastrophic,” he admits that it would have been very difficult for the college administration to have foreseen these effects. To him, however, what matters now is solving the “morale problem” that the faculty has with regards to the Honors program.

Kuharski’s solution to the quandary of the spring semester schedule is quite the opposite of Williamson’s proposal: he would like to see the semester lengthened to 15 weeks. He noted that many large research-heavy colleges have semesters that last 15 to 16 weeks, without significant faculty or student outcry. In his opinion, the current system of 14 weeks — and, more significantly, 13 weeks in the fall — leaves no margin for error for either professors or students, who cannot take sick days or vacation days without risking missing a major portion of the course. Counterintuitively, he argues, longer semesters lead to less stress for all.

While unsure of the specifics of 15-week semesters, Kuharski agreed that 14-week semesters would be a “fair compromise.” Giving up a week of class time, however, is not at all agreeable to him. He also thinks that students are unlikely to change their minds on the previously-approved new schedule.

One thing that both Kuharski and Williamson stressed is that there is little quantifiable data available to aid in the decision-making process. Kuharski said that the faculty are working on a study to determine how many Honors exams are actually taken during the official exam period, and how much stress students truly feel about the process.

Kuharski noted that in the past, the Honors program required six preparations. Most of them were seminars, which require written exams, while theses do not. Not only has the number of preparations decreased, but many departments have become more thesis-oriented, so that the average Honors student prepares for fewer written exams than they did in the past. He believes it is very possible that the concern over the amount of stress during the Honors exam period could merely be “urban legend” — but he wants to see real data to support his hypothesis.

Current sophomores and freshmen — the ones who are currently set to face the previously-approved schedule that shortens exam prep and senior week — have largely expressed concern over limiting stress. That means that reducing exam preparation time is particularly unpopular.

“[Reducing exam preparation] is not going to just affect a couple people, it’ll affect everyone here. And people are already so stressed out about everything. Giving them a shorter time to prepare for exams just adds unnecessary pressure to everyone at the school. I believe it adds pressure to teachers, too,” said Michael Song ’18.

“I think I would love having those extra days. It’s not just the amount of time available to prepare, but also having as much time in our comfort zone at the school as long as possible. I think all seniors would love to have those extra days,” noted David Levy ‘18.

Even senior week is on the minds of some of these first-years. “I had so much fun during my high school senior week, and I don’t want to have my college senior week any shorter,” said Gabriel Perez-Putnam ’18.

Shortening the spring semester, as Williamson proposes, is more acceptable to underclassmen — but not without its downsides.

“I feel like it would be totally fine, but it’s really up to the professors. They need to be able to teach at a reasonable pace, and if many of them are already rushing to finish their courses, then we shouldn’t make that change,” argues Song.

“On paper, it sounds nice, but it’s hard to come to a solid conclusion. I think that not only would professors have to cram more work in, but also students would be negatively affected by the added amount of work. I can see that students and professors would have some positives and negatives,” Levy said.

Many students agree that shortening the semester may not be wise. Patrick Ross ’15, one of the most vocal opponents of the schedule change proposal, hopes that it doesn’t need to get to that point.

“Fourteen weeks is already short. Thirteen in the fall is even shorter. I value instruction time, I don’t want to lose it,” said Ross.

The biggest priority for Ross and many others is that moving forward, the faculty and administration do a better job of working with students and accommodating their views. Most faculty accept that the lack of student consultation last spring was a grave mistake — “tone-deaf,” in Kuharski’s words. Ross believes that students would be more agreeable to any decision that includes meaningful student contribution.

“I think great things would come from simply asking. I maintain that, had the students been originally consulted on this and the faculty decision made regardless, I would have been similarly irked but much less galvanized to pursue the issue,” Ross said.

Williamson noted that in order for this to be the case, students must be consistently vocal in making their opinions known. “It is certainly in their self-interests to not want shorter exam preparation or a shorter senior week. If I were Patrick Ross or any other senior, I would have done the same thing,” he said.

The general student consensus seems to be that no change at all would be the best way to avoid problems. However, the administration and faculty appear to be steadfast in wanting to advance commencement a week.

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