Column | Feb. 5
It is, by now, a fact of life to most of us at Princeton that we will see no real breaks during the academic year. Though placing fall and spring breaks after midterms theoretically allows a mid-semester respite, everything from essays to take-home midterms to midterms scheduled oddly in the week after break makes these less of a break, and more of a short stretch of work without classes. And this says nothing of our winter schedule. Our longest break — the five weeks of winter break and reading period — is situated at the exact time when students have high-pressure final projects and papers due, and finals themselves are just around the bend. This situation is especially poor for freshmen, who have little idea how much effort needs to be put into academics over winter break in order to adequately prepare for finals. Inertia and controversy over what any change to the calendar would look like, however, have kept this format since its Depression-era inception. Only by finding the best option for change to the academic calendar, and rallying as a student body and as a University behind it, can we hope to adjust our outdated system.
As the fourth-oldest school in the nation, Princeton has a number of educational policies and other traditions which are unique, or at least rare, among U.S. institutions. Some, like the Honor Code and residential colleges, distinguish us even from our peer institutions and are justifiably lauded. Other, newer policies such as grade deflation are brave changes possible only because of Princeton’s prestige; love it or hate it, grade deflation raises important points about U.S. educational standards. But traditions as strange as Princeton’s winter non-break seem to be the product of mere institutional inertia. As James Evans reported in the Daily Princetonian before the 2012-13 winter break, much of the reason behind Princeton’s keeping fall exams in January has been due to simple lack of sustained effort to make the change.
The last concerted effort to move finals in 2005 fell apart when students failed to unite behind a single revised system. Faculty members, also divided by several propositions, were resistant to the idea of moving finals before break because students tended to produce higher quality work, especially written work, when it was assigned over break. It makes sense that work would be high-quality, but the expectation that students spend their three-week break working defies the very idea of break. Faculty ought to have realistic expectations for what students can produce in the time allocated for academic work, and if the semester seems too short, advocate for extended instruction time or reading period rather than forcing winter break to absorb the overflow. Compare this to Harvard which, after several years of sustained student effort, moved its fall finals from January to December in 2008.
That same year, Princeton undergraduates were surveyed, and it was found that 64 percent of undergraduates would approve of a similar change, while only 25 percent would oppose it. Then-USG academics chair Ben Lund ’10 took the survey as impetus to push change, as have various undergraduate student governments since then, including that of current president Shawon Jackson ’15, who indicated support for exploring changes to the calendar during both campaigns. The last administration was successful in adding an extra day to Thanksgiving break to allow those who live across the continent to make it home for turkey, indicating that the USG can work with the administration to effect common-sense changes to the calendar. The next step is tackling what President Emeritus Tilghman called the “big Kahuna” of academic calendar issues — our winter non-break.
As students, we can solve the problem of our own fragmentation. If students and faculty can’t agree on whether to move finals by eliminating fall break or moving the start of the year earlier, we won’t change the current system. Students can, however, agree to settle on one new calendar if chosen by a committee of faculty, administrators and interested students. Such a group should consider all options, including nixing fall break and moving the semester toward August, but also more drastic changes such as moving to the quarter system, which could keep fall start and spring end dates approximately the same (I, myself, am a fan of Dartmouth’s flexible “D-Plan”).
Such recommendations, regardless of whether everyone agreed they were ideal, should be embraced by the student body since they would almost certainly be better than the four weeks of limbo we have now.
Bennett McIntosh is a sophomore from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.