In a continuation of a series responding to the November 14 report released by the Task Force on General Education, the Board will comment on the report’s fifth recommendation: calendar reform. The task force recommends changes to the first-semester schedule, whereby classes would begin the final week of August and students would take final examinations in December before winter break. This change would facilitate the introduction of a three-week January term, dubbed the “J Term,” during which students would have the opportunity to explore new opportunities on campus, off campus, or abroad. Participation in a J Term course or program would be mandatory during at least one of an undergraduate’s four years at Princeton. The Board reaffirms its support for calendar reform to move finals before winter break; however, we are opposed to the task force’s recommendation to mandate participation in at least one J Term.
As we have argued in the past, there are compelling reasons to move final examinations to December. Under the current calendar, wedging a two- or three-week winter break and an eight-day reading period between the conclusion of classes in December and the start of exams in January creates unnecessary stress for students that can be easily mitigated by calendar reform. Students are likely to forget material during winter break, and the knowledge of impending due dates and examinations does not allow students to fully de-stress and dedicate time to their family, friends, and personal health. Given the rigor of the twelve-week semester at Princeton, the academic calendar should maximize break time unencumbered by academic deadlines. We believe this is vital for continued student success at the University, as exemplified by the February 2015 Winter Break Referendum, in which 96.2% of voters were in favor of extending the 2015 Winter Break from two weeks to three.
Notably absent from the task force’s report is any discussion of how calendar reform would influence timelines for junior independent work. One concern is that deadlines before a December Dean’s Date would be unmanageable for students completing their first-ever semester of independent work. This contrasts with the second semester, during which students have already completed one independent project and will be better able to manage time to complete their work before the start of summer break. To mitigate this challenge in the fall, we encourage individual departments to consider assigning independent work deadlines during the J Term. While the Board does not withdraw its support from calendar reform due to independent work concerns, we do urge the University to put careful thought into the most appropriate submission timelines.
Turning to the J Term — while we believe it is a positive recommendation to offer students optionality and flexibility concerning their five-week winter break, we have several concerns about mandating participation in one J Term during a student’s time at Princeton. First, we believe there is an undue financial and planning burden associated with determining which January, over the course of a student’s four years, they would choose to participate in the J Term. In making this decision, students would have to consider, far in advance, logistical plans related to cost, travel, family members’ schedules, and even when winter break overlaps with the winter breaks of friends from other colleges. In particular, a two-week winter break followed by a mandatory J Term generates unique burdens for international students who must travel farther and often spend more money to return home during breaks. Students from lower income backgrounds would face similar barriers. Thus, with only two weeks of break, some students may opt out of visiting home during the winter break when they are participating in J Term.
Second, students only have four winter breaks over the course of their college career. Shortening one of these to only two weeks generates a significant marginal cost to all students. A long winter break offers students the unique opportunity to relax and decompress from the pressures of Princeton for an extended period of time. Given that many students participate in internships or other programs that keep them away from home over the summer, shortening any winter break significantly impacts students who would otherwise spend an uninterrupted five weeks with their family and friends.
Finally, costs to students aside, we do not believe that the proposed activities of the J Term warrant mandated participation. Many of their benefits are already met by existing academic offerings, extracurricular activities, and individual student initiatives. These added opportunities would benefit students who choose to take advantage of them, and students should be encouraged to participate if the J Term is implemented. However, in order to maintain as much student choice and flexibility as possible, involvement should not be mandated for students who determine on an individual basis that the costs of participation outweigh its benefits.
In conclusion, the Board is optimistic about the prospect of calendar reform. However, we urge the University administration to reconsider mandating J Term participation in order to optimize the reform’s anticipated benefits.
Connor Pfeiffer ’18 recused himself from the writing of this editorial.