Author: Andrea Gissing
‘The best part of [Winter Term] is that it gave me the opportunity to have experiences that have changed my life — experiences that can only be lived, not taught from a book.” Elizabeth Del Rosario’s ’03 sentiments reflected those expressed by many alumni when presented with the opportunity to voice their thoughts on the month-long term currently under review at Middlebury College.
Questions about the value of Winter Term, affectionately known as “J-Term,” unleashed a flood of memories and strong opinions from Middlebury alumni who attended the College after 1969, the year when Winter Term made its debut. Then-President James Armstrong was a leading advocate of the term, saying that both students and faculty would benefit from the flexibility and freedom offered by the month-long reprieve between the fall and spring semesters.
Opponents argue that Winter Term is viewed more as an invitation to relax than as a time for substantive academic endeavors. However many alumni disagree. “I definitely worked hard during J-term and liked being able to devote all of my energy to one class,” said Jen Crystal ‘00.5. “I definitely got more out of the class than I often did out of semester length courses, each of which I was trying to balance with three other courses.”
Rich Gallup ’01 argues that Winter Term offered a sneak preview of the demands he now faces in the real world. “The intense experience of J-Term independent study, forcing myself to do so much on an extremely tight schedule, prepared me for the demands of the real world better than any class I took in the fall or spring. I found that I could challenge – and demand more from myself – better than any of my professors,” Gallup said.
Echoing other alumni, Stephen Olson ’74 offered a potential solution to the perceived lack of rigor in Winter Term courses. “If the problem is that professors are offering ‘gut’ courses,” said Olson, “that is hardly the fault of either the students or the concept. It seems that the courses that were stimulating and challenging were popular, and people got a lot out of it. There is no intrinsic reason why the course load should be lighter than during the regular semester. A teacher could hold classes for four hours a day, five days a week and throw out no-shows.”
Kelly Hase ’00 recalled that workloads varied widely by course. “I think the courses – like any other semester – can be extremely difficult, extremely easy and anywhere in between,” she said.
However, instead of vehemently asserting that Winter Term was nothing but hard work, alumni welcomed the change of pace and the non-academic opportunities offered during January. “The luxury of J-Term is that you get the chance to give your undivided attention to one class,” said Hase, “and then you get to explore Vermont, friends and extracurricular activities. It was a great change of pace and it helped energize me for the spring semester.”
Michael Hartt ’01 expressed similar sentiments. “J-Term is a huge part of the social scene at Middlebury as well,” he said. “It provides a necessary break from the cold, dark winters of Vermont and gives us something fun to look forward to. Yes, there is more partying during J-Term, but only because Middlebury students like to do things, and during the middle of the winter, our ability to go outside is much more restricted.”
And then there’s skiing. “It’s no secret that Middlebury attracts die-hard skiers,” said Crystal, “and I think everyone appreciates the extra time over J-Term to ski and socialize. Having this time did not make me work any less, it just decreased my stress level and increased my love of the school.”
Hartt added, “I’d much rather have a campus of kids who love that month of January, who are excited to be there for things like skiing and broomball and hockey games and so on, than those who return from Christmas to the doldrums of starting another academic semester.”
What most alumni seem to feel strongly about is that Winter Term allowed them the opportunity to enjoy the full academic experience, without becoming overloaded. Del Rosario said, “J-Term was definitely a time to engage in academic pursuits but most importantly, it was a time to actually enjoy learning and being able to process new information. [This is] as opposed to the rest of the year where I often felt like I was just taking in information, without the time to enjoy the learning process.”
Katherine Milgram ’03 expressed similar sentiments. “[Winter Term] was integral in many different ways. I used it as a chance to explore academic interests, gain focus as a student, expand my extracurricular experiences at Middlebury, enjoy the Vermont we all tend to take for granted during the busy semester months and most importantly to enjoy Middlebury’s breadth of curricular and extracurricular life.”
While having a shortened term in January is not unique to Middlebury College, it is one of the aspects that the College is known for. “Middlebury has a good academic reputation with [Winter Term],” said Olsen, “and it helps to differentiate the College from others. Harvard has one approach to undergraduate education, St. Johns has another, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology another still. There is no need for homogeneity, and in fact having a diverse array of curriculums is probably in everybody’s best interest.”
Since the inaugural Winter Term in 1969, administrative and faculty opinions on the subject have fluctuated. Student sentiment, however, seems to remain the same. “I strongly ‘vote’ for preserving Winter Term,” said Franci Farnsworth ’73, “with whatever changes will address the real issues raised by faculty and administration.” These “real” issues include the costs associated with hiring visiting facuty, the time and cost to develop the Winter Term catalog and social problems and dorm damage that arise during the month of January.
Kevin King ’02 agreed, saying, “Without J-Term, [Middlebury is] just another stressed-out NESCAC [school], where students have no chance during the year to try to learn differently or get ‘outside the bubble’ to apply what they have learned or gain new connections.”
It is clear that Winter Term holds a special place in the memories of students who have experienced it. Concluded Crystal, “J-Term was by far my greatest and most memorable experience at Middlebury.”