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In nearly twenty years as a professor of college-aged students, I’ve taught on nearly every calendar imaginable: the quarter system, the semester system, “interim” and December terms. I’ve even professed at a small liberal arts college on the much-maligned one-course-at-a-time system.

Higher Education Got Corrupted

Lately, however, the Cal State University system and many other colleges and universities nationwide have been moving in droves to semesters and the shorter holiday breaks they entail. They do so mostly on the basis of rather uncertain scholarship and an abundance of anecdotal evidence that first-generation and academically-challenged college students perform better in a fifteen or sixteen-week term. The percentage of institutions on the quarter system (less than 15% nationally and falling fast) evidences a near total victory for the advocates of longer terms. Cal State Los Angeles and Cal State Bakersfield switched to the two 15-week semesters this fall, while Cal Poly Pomona, San Luis Obispo, and San Bernardino have requested to participate in the last-wave of conversions that would create a unified calendar across all seventeen state universities.

As a former rural first-gen college student myself, I'm troubled by the idea that love of home necessarily threatens loyalty to the alma mater—or that students (and faculty for that matter) cannot effectively manage their time or their shared loyalties—or that somehow letting them apportion their unstructured hours in, say, December, between work, family and friends, and self-directed studies means a loss of retention or engagement in January. One of the hallmarks of the quarter/trimester system was a holiday break that lasted from Thanksgiving to New Years, a sizable chunk of time that enabled many rural and small-town students to return home to work for family and serve home community.

In many ways student ties to home lay at the crux of the academic calendar debate, though very few will admit it. Many institutions moving to the semester system do so in part to increase high-profile student opportunities for short-term study abroad and co-curricular opportunities on campus (read: retention and engagement), but all this begs the question: why is traveling abroad inherently any better, more noble, or more educationally valuable than traveling back home or domestically? And why is taking a business class in Rome, say, inherently any more enlightened, praiseworthy, or worthy of institutional sponsorship and funding than working at a family business back home in Fresno or Salinas or Santa Rosa; both require much more than a long weekend; both are often educational and character-forming; yet one (the study abroad) is traditionally promoted and valorized as a worthwhile, credit-bearing opportunity while the other (returning home to work and engage) is seen as a threat to retention, persistence, and overall morale. It’s hard not to see a classist, elitist judgment implicit in the hyper-veneration of such so-called cosmopolitanism that’s as old as Rome itself.

I too was a first-generation rural college student a generation ago, and found the transition away from the farm to my state land-grant university to be a fraught one.

I too was a first-generation rural college student a generation ago, and found the transition away from the farm to my state land-grant university to be a fraught one, especially during my first semester away. A nascent agitator for social justice, I found myself disgusted by what seemed the pervasive student apathy of the mid 1990s . Within the first eight weeks of that Fall semester—unhappily lodged in a college dormitory that housed more students than my agrarian home town had residents, I wrote asking for literature and application materials from VISTA and the Peace Corps while simultaneously contemplating leaving college for a return to the farm.

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In the hyper-vigilant, hyper-consumer-aware climate that pervades higher education today, I would no doubt have been labeled an “at-risk” first-generation rural college student exhibiting all of the “risk factors” for dropping out when winter break arrived. In addition to having a father back on the farm needy of my help and desirous of my presence, I had a girlfriend and old friends eager for my return. As soon as finals finished the dorms would be locked up tight, giving me even more incentive to make a clean break from the academic life.

I’m glad, though, that I was allowed to make up my own mind to return to university later that January after a good, long, perspective-giving holiday break. Instead of an intervention from higher education’s sometimes Orwellian machinations or its not-so-subtle moves to keep-em-occupied year-round schooling, the space and time with my family, friends, and loved ones that winter break and those that followed helped me to chart my own course in my own time. Eventually I grew to love my intellectual life at the university in concert with my grounded life back home, and was glad not to have to decide between them.

I don’t mean to suggest something nefarious about California’s wholesale move to the semester system (though aren’t academics rightfully suspicious of monoculture and standardization and celebratory of the exceptional and the unique?); it’s been my experience that college and universities are appropriately customer service-centered in most everything they do, and in that light their hard sell of semesters demonstrates, as always, their good intentions. America’s colleges and universities need to thrive, and doing so in an increasingly competitive market and demographic environment requires tough, bottom-line choices.

But I do think the “good fights” they feel the need to fight are best tackled straightforwardly and head-on without euphemism, jargon, doublespeak, or statistical slight of hand. If America’s institutions of higher learning have good reason to keep students on campus and away from home and home folks for those sacred few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas; and again around Easter, let them say so plainly and in a language all of us can understand.

Let them speak from the heart as well as from the endowment. Remember, the Grinch, pre-reform, couldn’t understand why on earth the Whos needed their egregiously long holiday season of communion, roast beast carving, and full community chorus.


Zachary Michael Jack