Recapping the J-Term Semester

In January 2021, for the first time, Swarthmore College offered students the option to register for a four-week long, remote term. According to the Swarthmore website (see here) , J-term was implemented to help students divide their credit load throughout the 2020-2021 academic year. 

During the J-term, students completed one full-credit course over four weeks, beginning on Jan. 4 and ending on Jan. 28. Most class times were divided into roughly two to three sessions per day, totaling 7-8 hours per week of class time with some variation depending on the class and professor. To be eligible to register for J-term, students must have either been registered with the college in the Fall semester or expressed intent to register for the upcoming Spring semester. First-year and transfer students, however, must have been registered in the Fall to be eligible for J-term. 

In a survey conducted by The Phoenix posted to the 2020-2021 student Facebook group, 63 out of the 67 survey participants attended a J-term course, though the survey did not reach all eligible students. Out of approximately 1,700 students eligible to register, 1,245 — or 73.24% — did. The majority of surveyed students registered for courses in the social sciences, followed by humanities, then STEM.  

As a result of this year’s recommended credit distribution (three credits in the Fall, one over J-term, four in the Spring), most J-term students registered to avoid falling behind in their credit load. Students also cited other reasons for registering, including that J-term provided an opportunity to explore new classes that they would have  otherwise been unable to take, presented an intriguing new course format, enabled them to satisfy major requirements, and helped fill up their winter break. 

“I didn’t want to spend winter break doing nothing. I also took four credits over the Fall semester and, because I usually take five, I didn’t want to fall behind,” said Martin Rakowszcyk ’22. 

Alternatively, Adria Retter ’23 attributed her decision to register for a J-term course to curiosity about the new course format.

“I took a class because I wanted to try out a class with J-term structure.” Retter wrote. “I chose a math class out of interest, but coincidentally it’s going to fulfill a major requirement. This class, along with one I took in the Fall, inspired me to become a math major.” 

Unlike Retter and Rakowszcyk, Damla Gondogdu ’23 decided against taking a J-term course. In an interview with The Phoenix, Gondogdu explained that she did not register for J-term because the course offerings were too limited in scope. 

“I was between two course options, one in the economics department, one in the psychology department. Both of these options conflicted with honors seminars I was planning to take in the Spring. If there was a more diverse array of courses available to me then I would have been able to take a J-term class. In general, the courses felt too limited and also didn’t really take into consideration what courses would be offered in the Spring,” she said.  

A difference in time zones factored into her decision as well. 

“As an international student Zooming in from Dubai, the time difference was also an issue. Zoom, in general, seems to exclude, or at least complicate, the ability of international students to register for and participate in class.” 

Emma Holub ’23, another student who did not register for J-term, decided to pursue an internship instead. Because J-term courses have scheduled class time four days a week, it was impossible for Emma to attend class while pursuing her internship. 

“Although I did register initially, I was accepted into my dream internship three days into the course and decided to drop it,” she said. 

Following the completion of their J-term course, many students indicated that they hoped this experiment would not continue beyond this year. This was reflected by the survey results, with 32 out of the 67 responders indicating that they do not wish for the college to offer J-term in the future.

Claiming that J-term was too much work for too short of a time period, and that it did not allow for a sufficient break between semesters, among other reasons, many students felt that the J-term’s structure was not conducive to a productive learning experience. 

Rakowszyck felt that J-term’s compressed time-frame resulted in a less thorough deep-dive into coursework.  

“The big issue [with J-term] was that the course was compressed in a lot of ways. We didn’t get through as much as I had thought we would. Also, we had a final project that was worth a significant portion of our grade. Because the course was so compressed, we received feedback that would have taken twelve hours to implement five hours before the deadline,” he said.

Echoing Rakowszcyk, Fenja Tramsen ’23 said that J-term’s time frame interfered with her ability to both master and be passionate about her course-work. 

“I thought the J-term structure had some serious flaws because … it’s impossible to digest the amount of information we were given in such a short amount of time and … be passionate about it. I was studying something that I was genuinely interested in with a great professor and felt bored by it because it was all-consuming,” she said. 

Other students, however, enjoyed the condensed structure of the J-term semester and expressed hopes to take another J-term course in the future. 

“I loved the break from a normal semester’s pacing, and the full immersion in one class was a unique experience. It was surprisingly fun … I learned a lot from a class that I maybe would not have had the courage to try out in a normal semester,” said Retter. 

Although professors teaching during the J-term semester testified to a positive teaching experience and emphasized the resilience and accomplishments of their students, they also indicated significant problems with the J-term structure. 

In an email to The Phoenix, political science Professor Sean Diament described issues he encountered while teaching, mainly concerning J-term’s condensed time frame. 

“The major pitfalls of J-term were simply the demanding nature of condensed workshop-style learning. People lose focus the longer they are in class, so it is tough to maintain interest throughout the day. Even with the condensed nature, there was still insufficient room to cover all of the material that would occur in a quarter or semester … I had to cut some excellent assignments that students would have enjoyed completing,” wrote Diament. 

Chemistry Professor Paul Rablen and Professor of RussianSibelan Forrester also pointed to similar issues with J-term’s short time frame. 

“I do not think J-term would work well for introductory science courses like general chemistry or organic chemistry 1, for instance. There just needs to be more time.  Even if the number of hours ended up being the same in a 4-week period, it is not the same as having 12-14 weeks, with those same work hours more spread out. People sometimes just need time to digest new material,” Rablen wrote.

Teaching an introductory language course over J-term, Professor Forrester described the difficulty of managing a comprehensive language program with student wellbeing during a compressed time frame. 

“[Besides just those issues inherent to learning a new language over Zoom], there’s also the intensity of the J-term semester,” Forrester said. “To get through all the homework the students were working their butts off … that was the other problem; compacting [the course material within J-term’s time constraints] plus Zoom.” 

Ultimately, the J-term semester produced a variety of different experiences and opinions. Although most members of the college community involved with J-term seem to agree that its time constraints negatively impacted their learning and teaching experiences, they also attested to a love and passion for the course they were either learning or teaching. With some deep restructuring, it might be possible to offer an improved version of J-term in the future. 

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