University News

Working group weighs pros, cons of winter term

Winter term could offer expanded academic opportunities, alter academic calendar

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2015

A new working group comprising faculty members, staff members and students will convene this semester to discuss the possibility of a winter term at Brown, Provost Vicki Colvin announced in a campus-wide email Feb. 20.

The working group has been tasked with identifying classes that would work well in this shortened timeframe, setting academic goals, determining course credit options, analyzing costs of changing the academic calendar and identifying the advantages and disadvantages of the new term for all members of the University, according to the Winter Term Working Group Charge.   

“We are a pre-committee,” said Kevin McLaughlin P’12, dean of the faculty and co-chair of the Winter Term Working Group, adding that the working group will submit an interim report to the University in May detailing its findings.

The winter term would affect the academic calendar, student learning and faculty research possibilities, said Maud Mandel, dean of the College and co-chair of the group. 

“We are asking ourselves if the benefits (of creating a winter term) outweigh the inconveniences of changing our academic calendar,” Mandel said. The creation of a winter term would lengthen the time between the fall and spring semesters and could affect senior week and the date of commencement, she said. Many administrators and faculty members hope commencement will not have to be pushed back, as a later graduation date could affect student employment as well as faculty members’ summer research, she added.

The winter term would give students more academic opportunities, such as courses with more intensive focuses, online classes, study abroad options and travel classes, Mandel said. It would also allow students away from campus to take advantage of the longer winter break to partake in “winternships,” she said. 

If the University’s new calendar aligns with the Rhode Island School of Design’s, the change would facilitate academic collaboration and make taking courses at both institutions simpler for students, Mandel said.

Faculty feedback on the creation of a new term has been positive so far — faculty members see it as an “interesting possibility,” McLaughlin said. It will give professors an opportunity to teach classes in a new format and give others more time for research, he added.

The working group is looking at peer institutions that have recently implemented a winter term to see what classes professors are teaching and how they are teaching them, McLaughlin said. Cornell, for example, has recently instituted its winter term, and a large portion of its classes are online, McLaughlin added.

Many students use RISD’s Wintersession as a chance to take classes outside of their concentrations, said Ian Kenyon GS, a working group member and a Herald opinions columnist. “It can really expand opportunities across the board,” he said.

Graduate student response to the idea has been generally positive, Kenyon said.

If the winter term becomes popular, it would offer many grad students additional opportunities to work as teaching assistants, he said.

“We are aware of the different impacts a winter break would have on (the) undergraduate and graduate student bodies,” said Ria Mirchandani ’15, the working group’s only undergraduate member.

“There are various complicated aspects” to implementation, Mirchandani said. The working group members have discussed how the term could affect student financial aid, prospects of finishing credits early and graduating early, logistics for staff and student services and many other concerns, he said.

The working group plans on holding three public forums this semester for faculty members, undergraduates and grad students, as well sending a campus-wide survey to solicit feedback from a wide range of community members, Mandel said.

“This would be a really big change to Brown and would introduce a whole new dimension of classes,” McLaughlin said. “We don’t want to do it hastily.”

In 2007, the University piloted January@Brown, which offered non-credit courses for 10 days in January. In its second year, the program saw one-fourth lower enrollment than projected, drawing only 25 students, and it was canceled in 2008 due to low participation.

  • Luiz F. Valente

    Three comments:
    1. It’s interesting that Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin has stated that faculty feedback regarding the creation of a January term has been positive. Most of the colleagues I have talked to aren’t supportive of a January term.

    2. One possibility for aligning the calendars of RISD and Brown would be for RISD to change its calendar to fit ours. We’re twice as large and a far more complex an institution than RISD, so I don’t understand why the effort has to come from our end.
    3. Providing graduate students with additional teaching opportunities during a January term should be considered low priority. I’d rather my doctoral students used the January intersession to work on their dissertations and other research projects. Teaching experience is certainly needed, but it’s of little value in the current job market unless it’s matched by a completed dissertation and a few publications in good journals.
    Luiz F. Valente’83PhD
    Professor of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies and
    Comparative Literature