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St. Mary's College of California students visit Rwanda during Janterm 2014

St. Mary's College of California

“Janterm" has long been a signature offering of liberal arts colleges. Wedged between the end of the holiday break and the start of the spring semester, these January terms, or interterms as they are called on some campuses, offer time for students to immerse themselves in travel abroad or a single, intensive course they never would take otherwise – because it's far outside their course of study, or nontraditional, or both. A student studying chemistry might take a three-week course on, say, Harry Potter or visit and study Greece with classmates.

But there are downsides to Janterm. It tends to lengthen the academic year, potentially disadvantaging graduates and student interns on the job market. And because students sometimes see a Janterm as a kind of "break" between semesters, it can be harder to get them to take their courses seriously. On top of those more practical concerns, shifts in higher education trends play into the Janterm debate. What may never have been passable as a full-semester course 20 years ago might well be so now, so professors these days don't necessarily have to wait for Janterm to offer a course on Beyoncé or "Breaking Bad," for example.

For those reasons, among others, Doane College in Crete, Neb., will do away with its Janterm starting next year. The college has offered “interterm,” as it’s called there, for some 40 years. Students must participate in three interterms over four years in order to graduate. In addition to faculty-led trips abroad, the college has offered on-campus interterm courses on such topics as “sushi biology”; the HBO Drama “The Wire”; the psychology of evil; the culture of food and drink; and time travel. There are generally no prerequisites, so students can take whatever they wish.

John Burney, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, said the decision was driven largely by curricular concerns. Doane is shortening its academic calendar by about a week and introducing a required liberal arts seminar for freshmen, sophomores and juniors (or seniors who elect to take the third seminar late for some reason). They’re focused on learning the art of inquiry; democracy and diversity; and connecting knowledge to choices and actions, respectively.

Ending interterm also allows the college to reduce its number of required credits for graduation to 123, from 132, making it more in line with peer institutions.

But some of the more basic concerns about Janterm played into the decision, as well.

“Over time there was slippage in terms of academic challenge,” Burney said, in part because professors were so varied in their approach to and expectations for students during interterm. Because of that, students saw Janterms as a more “relaxed period,” he added.

In other words, less work and more parties. And that became a question of value.

In an era when higher education is increasingly expensive and calls for accountability to students and parents abound, Doane wanted to “deepen student learning,” Burney said. He added that there aren’t significant cost savings associated with the change for the college or the student; at Doane, the cost of on-campus interterms is covered by tuition for full-time students, outside of some fees for select courses.

Burney said faculty largely supported the idea of ending interterm, and were involved in that decision as well as drafting the new curriculum.

Jennifer Bosssard, a professor of economics, said she supported the end of interterm, and was looking forward to offering the course on human trafficking she taught for this year’s interterm again, but during the regular semester, starting next year.

“The challenge with teaching that class in a January term or an interterm format is that meeting every day for three hours doesn’t provide for students to do outside reading, or just to process that information or to be talking to people about it,” Bossard said. “Especially with that topic.”

Bossard said some students understandably had trouble digesting the heavy subject matter in a condensed calendar. Other students told her they’d never before worked so hard during interterm, she said. When the new curriculum kicks in next year, Bossard will be offering the course as a third-year liberal arts honors seminar.

The professor said there were some benefits to interterm. It’s an opportunity to give “undivided attention toward one topic,” she said. “That’s your focus.” But Bossard said she’d also had business and economics students arrive late to summer internships and on the job market – alone a good reason to end interterm.

Burney said there’s mixed emotion among students.

Jordyn Atwater, a sophomore biochemistry major who took courses on volleyball recruiting and the "basics" of art for her first -- and last -- two interterms, respectively, said she'll miss interterm, and that a majority of students probably feel the same way.

"It if was up to me, I'd like to see interterm remain," Atwater said. "There were some fun and interesting classes offered and it was a fun break for me. You take a class that's still challenging and fun but that isn't as demanding as taking 19 credits a semester. And it eases you back into things [after the holiday break]."

But, she said, "I do understand where the college is coming from." Some students didn't take the courses as seriously as they might during a regular semester, and it's beneficial for students to be on the same schedule as bigger institutions, she said. Atwater said she thought that as soon as the current student body "migrates" out of Doane, the end of interterm wouldn't matter, as new students wouldn't know about it and it wouldn't really change the fundamental mission of the college.

It’s hard to know exactly how many institutions still offer Janterm. The American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers doesn't track that data. Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said via email that she wasn’t aware of colleges dropping them in droves but “frankly, I don’t know how many still have them.”

For those that do, however, she said, “they are very valuable tools as vehicles to help students get more in-depth and more applied/experiential learning opportunities.” It’ll be “sad if they can’t be sustained at least at some schools,” she added.      

If Doane took one side of the Janterm debate, there are other colleges on the other side who see Janterm as a a vital part of their mission -- and of the liberal arts more broadly.

“It is a really compelling example of how a liberal arts curriculum can work well, so to see it go is sad, I would imagine,” said Bethami Dobkin, provost at St. Mary’s College in California, which recently reviewed (as it does periodically) and reaffirmed its Janterm program. “That’s why we kept it.”

Dobkin said one of the major advantages of Janterms at St. Mary’s is study abroad opportunities – especially for students who are first-generation or work or for any other reason don’t want to atudy away for an entire semester. And those students who remain on campus are required to a take a full-credit course – the farther outside their comfort zone, the better.

“Outside the liberal arts core, this is an opportunity to try something different, and different from major course requirements,” Dobkin said. She noted that because interterm participation is required for all four years and courses are full-credit, St. Mary’s hasn’t experienced the kind of lowered academic expectations for Janterm that other institutions have reported.

Each year, St. Mary’s Janterm has a theme. This January, it was “Metamorphosis.” Out-of-the-box courses included “Hunger Dames,” about women in science fiction and fantasy literature, and “Lying 101.” The courses aren’t necessarily taught by English or psychology faculty. Courses are interdisciplinary and professors can teach what they want.

Whittier College in California also is committed to its Janterm program, said President Sharon Herzberger. The college shortened the term by a few days in 2011 to accommodate a May term, and rumors circle periodically that it's under threat. But Herzberger said the college is looking for ways to expand Janterm offerings, especially travel abroad opportunities. The president recently committed a $150,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grant to helping faculty develop their course offerings, and the college is in talks with several other unnamed colleges to create a consortium of Janterm courses abroad to lower the cost for students, Herzberger said (she declined to name the colleges, as the agreement is not yet final). On-campus courses are covered in full-time tuition at Whittier, but travel abroad incurs extra fees -- typical for Janterm at other colleges. Whittier travel opportunities already include a cross-China trip to study the economy there and a visit to Cuba to study Latin jazz.

Like Dobkins, Herzberger said students who many not ordinarily get to travel abroad are likelier to do so during Janterm. Herzberger also said there's enormous value in the bonds forged between students and faculty on such intensive trips, led by faculty. "Students get to know faculty so well, and faculty really get to know the students. That really doesn't truthfully happen in most semesterlong study abroad programs."

About 75 percent of students participate in Janterm at Whittier. It's not required there, but courses are full-credit for those who take them. Herzberger said she's also encouraging faculty who teach on-campus courses to make them "special," meaning they could only really be offered during Janterm. She cited a course on art on Los Angeles -- where students visit various cultural centers in the city, some 16 miles away -- as an example. Another course on simplicity requires students to spend five days at Southern California's Buddhist Hsi Lai Temple -- minus their cell phones.

"They are the kinds of experiences you can't provide a student during the [regular semester]," Herzberger said.


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