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Kenyon GS: Learning in January

Let’s be honest, we all love to learn. Every Brunonian who sets foot through the Van Wickle Gates and commits to obtaining a degree carries a devoted passion for expanding intellectual capacity. I, too, walked through the Gates and took this pact last August. Learning is great, and the opportunity to learn even more is even better — right?


Last December, I discovered an opportunity to serve our school. The Graduate Student Council was fielding graduate-level nominees to serve on the January Term Task Force. I had worked on committees at my undergraduate alma mater, so I jumped at the opportunity. I also saw the chance to foster more academic acquisition and inquiry at an institution already held in high regard.


I serve on the January Term Task Force, but I am not speaking on behalf of its members. I am simply bringing an issue that I consider worthy of discussion before Brown community members.


So what is a January term? It is typically a condensed mini-semester lasting four weeks within the month of January. Courses offered in a January term usually are intensive, meet daily and carry credits equivalent to those from fall and spring courses.


At other Ivy League institutions, the January term can be found in different forms. Harvard offers its students “enrichment programming” for a 10-day period in the later part of January known as “Wintersession,” according to school’s website. Cornell offers a similarly named “Winter Session” that lasts three weeks in January. 


Columbia does not offer a January term to undergraduates, but a “J-term” is available to students enrolled in Columbia Business School. Yale, Princeton and Penn currently do not offer January term opportunities to their students. Dartmouth’s unique academic calendar renders an additional term unnecessary.


Should Brunonians, therefore, consider the mixed adoption of a January term by fellow Ivies as a hint of caution? Is it a complex system, not easily navigable and not recognized as valuable across the board? Let’s not jump to conclusions.


Our College Hill neighbor, the Rhode Island School of Design, thinks otherwise. RISD offers a six-week “Wintersession” to students looking to explore fields outside their courses of study. A Brown “Wintersession” certainly would better synchronize both institutions’ academic calendars — currently mismatched and problematic — and potentially benefit students from both schools.


All departments at Brown would be affected by the implementation of a new academic term. The presence of additional students on campus during the month of January would require expanded on-campus services, including increased dining hall operations, maintenance staff duties, utility usage and so on. Such an uptick in demand for services would benefit students searching for additional employment opportunities — whether it is the undergraduate looking to pick up a few extra hours with Brown Dining Services or the ambitious graduate student or PhD candidate looking to teach a unique course.


The additional term would also expand research opportunities. It would provide added time for studies, potentially decrease the timeline to graduation, and, for those students who dislike the constant come-and-go nature of living on campus, provide a sense of permanence and mitigate the all-too-familiar feeling of being an interloper.


Brown could even take its January term classroom off campus and online. Online courses could offer Brunonians continued educational opportunities from the comfort of home. This could be a particularly attractive arrangement for students living far from Providence — whether elsewhere in the country or abroad.


And the best part of a January term? It’s optional! If you don’t want to take courses during the January term, you don’t have to. At many other institutions, students are not required to enroll in this extracurricular opportunity. Therefore, Brown students would not become overworked as a result of this change.


While the January Term Task Force, led by Provost Vicki Colvin, includes an appropriate selection of University administrators, faculty and other individuals, everyone should involve themselves in a larger discussion about the benefits — or risks — of a January term and how it could influence our lives. Every field has different needs and styles; for a successful implementation of a new academic term, no question should be left unanswered.


The conversation about introducing a January term is only just beginning, and this is the time to discuss all possibilities of what an implementation would look like. Identify your peers, instructors or administrators partaking in this larger discussion and share your thoughts with them. Share your thoughts with everyone, in class, at dinner or wherever you can.


Together, we can influence one of the largest institutional transitions to affect campus life since the adoption of the open curriculum. Brown will be our alma mater soon, but there will always be students — and ones who love to learn.


Ian Kenyon GS is a Master of Public Affairs candidate with the Taubman Center and a member of the January Term Task Force. Share your thoughts on potentially implementing a J-term with him at Ian_Kenyon@brown.edu.



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