It’s been a month since this semester started, but it’s felt like ‘forever’ since we’ve been at school. However, it wasn’t too long ago that I was hearing the same about winter break’s length. Why are our breaks so long? I’ve wondered about this since freshman year when I realized that, by the last two weeks of winter break, I didn’t have many ‘home’ friends left to hang out with because they’d gone back to school.
So I did some research to figure out why we have so much vacation time and found that the creation of our academic calendar is more complicated than I had anticipated. It’s created through a years-long process that involves a wide variety of stakeholders, including administrators, faculty, and students. Vacation days aren’t the only thing that must be taken into account; we need to have enough time for class meetings and exam prep, with a balance that makes everyone content. The reality is that there are many complex interests involved in the process and striking the right balance is difficult.
Making the Calendar
Academic Affairs and the Education Policy Committee (EPC) (a committee comprised of six faculty members, two WSA members, and one graduate student) update the academic calendar every five years—most recently last year. This process usually begins a couple years before the year it is updated.
The EPC created a survey about the calendar for students, the administration, faculty, and staff in Spring 2012, and the results were considered in Fall 2012. Based on the results the University Registrar Anna van der Burg, who oversees the creation of the calendar, proposed new drafts. In one draft, the spring semester started a week earlier and spring break was cut down to one week. This change would have made our academic calendar end much earlier and Commencement would not fall on Memorial Day weekend, as it traditionally does. The general student body, represented by the WSA, approved these changes to the calendar. The faculty, however, did not.
According to Professor Michael Singer, who was Chair of the EPC during Fall 2012 and then Co-Chair during Spring 2013:
To make a very long story short, the EPC proposed a new calendar that included, among many other things, a shorter winter break, but the faculty voted it down. There were various reasons for the opposition to this particular point. For example, some faculty make use of lengthy breaks to do research or travel, sometimes gaining access to scholarly resources that are unavailable at other times. In general, many faculty view “vacation days” as research time. And any faculty member will tell you that long blocks of time are best for making significant accomplishments in research.
Sam Ebb ’13, who was on the WSA and the EPC during these discussions, said, “concerns about losing research time were raised for people who have to do research during the winter based on climate conditions in different parts of the world.”
Additionally, the EPC and student representatives disagreed over the length of our reading week and Spring Fling’s date. During a WSA general meeting in Fall 2012, Singer discussed other potential calendar changes with WSA representatives and attendees. The EPC wanted to start reading period on the day that is usually reserved for Spring Fling (thus discouraging students from attending Spring Fling), start finals week a day earlier (thus not extending reading period), and require students to leave campus a day earlier. Students at the meeting did not approve of these changes, arguing that there is a build-up of work at the end of the spring semester, and that the combination of a shorter reading period, less time to move out, and the elimination of Spring Fling would add significantly to student stress. Singer responded that faculty often have problems submitting grades on time, and that the extra time these changes allot would help them. He also expressed Dean Whaley’s concern for “the safety of students during Spring Fling.”
Students still disagreed with the changes, stating that the EPC’s proposed calendar change failed to take into account a number of complicating factors, including learning disabilities and the potential greater dangers of lengthening senior week. Students also expressed concerns that Spring Fling serves as the spring semester’s equivalent of Thanksgiving break—a brief time to relax before finals week— and that getting rid of (or at least strongly discouraging) it would increase student stress. There was also a student proposal to have a “Community Day” in the fall semester, but the EPC felt that students who were serious about community building could work on it without using an entire day.
Then-WSA President Zach Malter ’13 summed up the general student sentiment in that meeting: “This new calendar makes it better for faculty and worse for students.” While the EPC’s changes did not pass and Spring Fling was saved (in part because of a WSA resolution), our current calendar fails to solve many of the issues raised in the WSA meeting—namely the build-up of work toward the end of the spring semester.
Wesleyan’s calendar stands out from those of other schools because the faculty has an unusually large role in university governance. At other schools, the administration usually dictates policy—like the academic calendar, for example. At Wesleyan, however, the faculty votes on such policy changes. At the same time, students have a voice through the WSA; two representatives sit on the EPC. Additionally, the faculty itself is diverse; there were some faculty members who supported shorter breaks and fewer vacation days, and others who preferred the longer breaks with more vacation days. Ultimately, the various factions cancelled each other out and we wound up with the same calendar that we’ve had since 2009 (which will now be our calendar until 2019).
Do We Even Have Class?
Even though our breaks are long, we still have the same number of class meetings as other schools. This is because federal regulations require that students have at least 13 class meetings per each day of the week over the course of the semester. This means 13 Mondays, 13 Tuesdays, 13 Wednesdays, etc. until the semester ends. It’s also possible to have ‘virtual’ days—so a Wednesday can stand in for a Monday to complete the count. In total, we have two 13-week semesters, which meets our federal regulations and gives us a similar amount of class contact time as our peer schools. (In a quick view of other school calendars it does look like we have approximately the same amount of class contact time. It’s important to note, though, that meeting federal regulations is just the minimum amount of required class time, and it’s possible that some schools may have more than we do.) If we didn’t meet federal regulations, then Wesleyan students wouldn’t qualify for federal student loans.
Since we have approximately the same amount of class contact time as our peer schools, variance in vacation days among the schools means that the calendars are slightly different in their reading week lengths, their start dates, or their end dates. For example, if a school starts classes a week earlier than we do, then it will end a week earlier; or if it has shorter reading periods, then it will end approximately a week and a half earlier than we do.
“Doing the academic calendar is a puzzle,” says van der Burg. “You’ve got contention in the front end of when you start but you also need to make sure we end in a timely fashion so students can go home for winter break.” This is why we start classes on Labor Day—so that there is enough time for New Student Orientation in addition to the required amount of class contact time, Fall Break, and Thanksgiving Break.
I tallied the number of vacation days for Wesleyan, the other NESCAC schools, and some other peer institutions. (It’s pretty accurate—but since my method was basically just opening up tabs of different academic calendars over and over and adding in my head, I might be off by a day or two.) It’s worth noting that certain schools actively encourage a winter session or internship of some sort. Williams has a mandatory Winter Study, when students must either take a class on campus or do an internship off campus. According to my middle school best friend Becky Tseytkin ’15 who goes to Williams, “Winter Study can be a time to relax, so some people take classes like cooking or yoga. Those tend to be the most popular ones. Some people find it’s a good opportunity to try something new and random at Williams that they wouldn’t do during a stressful semester.”
Oberlin also encourages students to partake in a Winter Term in January for three out of their four academic years, during which they can pursue independent study or research; this is to “enable students to discover the value of self-education” (liberal arts!). This Winter Term period is included in their “vacation day” count since it is not mandatory, which puts them in second place behind Wesleyan. I’m not sure what the deal is with Vassar or Hamilton, but perhaps they have a similar academic calendar process as we do.
Wesleyan started its two-week long winter session this year and just over 40 students participated. While it does seem to offer a rigorous learning experience (classes meet for five hours over the course of 8 days after having completed preliminary work for the course the week before), it’s obviously not an established program yet. If our winter breaks continue to be as long as they are, perhaps Wesleyan can start to offer more of an impetus for students to be productive during that time (if students are into that).
Are there any down sides to having so many vacation days? I guess that depends on how easily bored and/or lonely you get if you don’t already have cool break plans. Thoughts? If you want to see some changes made to the academic calendar, it’ll get remade just in time for you to have graduated!