I work at a university on the quarter system. Complaint about quarters makes for constant campus conversation, but I remain strangely fond of the system. Their alignment with the seasons permits an academic poetry of which I approve.
Autumn bursts into color as bright new minds pop up all over campus and my fellowship applicants bring to fruition four years of intellectual growth. Winter gives us time sit in front of the fire, read, write, and refine our thoughts as we share experience across departments and generations. Spring brings new applicants to bud, whom I nurture from a distance through the Summer quarter’s perilous balance of nutritive and stifling heat.
Our quarter system emerged from engineering and journalism students’ need for time in the private sector to learn the ropes that aid and constrain great minds in their fields. Those taking and teaching other types of study grouse over the difficulty of covering their material with adequate depth, of leaping from one test to another without pause, and of matching their calendars to summer and study abroad opportunities.
The problem arises because continental European Universities and their American imitations like semesters. They run August to December and February to June with a bit of variation to balance the breaks. This calendar follows the seasons in an alternative manner and avoids dragging students to class in the depths of winter or in the heat of summer.
Oxbridge’s dreaming spires have stood firm against the switch to semesters for centuries and seem likely to maintain their stance for centuries more. Appropriately, given my task to dispatch our students across the pond upon Oxbridge’s scholarly shores, these ancient academies keep to their ‘terms,’ which happen to make perfect matches with our quarters.
Oxford’s Michaelmas, Hilary, Trinity and Cambridge’s Michaelmas, Lent, Easter trimesters follow a medieval Christian calendar matched to an ancient seasonal calendar. They omit the summer during which scholars were meant to supervise or join the toil in their fathers’ fields.
At Northwestern, we have a summer quarter during which the staff toils and the faculty goes to “the field” for research and resuscitation. As I have written here  before, some students take advantage of this time to grow free from the restraint of endless evaluation. Some continue coursework in an environment made more comfortable by the summer sun. Others try to cut off the burden of student debt with capital acquired at a green summer pass.
Since our alumni ensconced in Oxbridge rarely have parental fields to plow, they travel further afield for research or return home to write during their summer respite. During my own stint in Cambridge, I spent my first summer in German archives, and my second summer marching down the aisle, off on my honeymoon, then back to a tiny apartment in order to edit my dissertation for submission. When Michaelmas term began with a flourish of color, I defended my dissertation and commenced my next degree within the same academic season. I simultaneously survived the experiences I advise and divide between seniors and freshman each September.
I suspect that my all-too-frequent attempts to do too much make me such a strong proponent of a seasonal system of instruction, which allows us to focus with a comforting rhythm. US instructors on the quarter system complain that they must skim over subjects too quickly that semesters would permit them to probe in depth. However, in Oxbridge, tutorials give faculty and students the freedom to dig deep into questions without the US need to assign a grade to every utterance. As a result, they cover more subjects in more depth and in equal time to their sisters sitting through long lectures on semesters.
Pete Seeger adapted a bit of biblical wisdom and wrote his own soothing embrace of the seasons, which I think we would all do well to remember:
To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven
Evanston, Illinois in the USA
Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a regular contributor to University of Venus . For more see http://elizabethlewispardoe.wordpress.com.