Last January, if you had intercepted one of Andrew Das’s students on the way to class, you would have found the young scholar burdened by all the essentials of undergraduate education—the notebook, the syllabus, the completed class assignments. Then you would have noticed the popcorn.
For one winter month, Das’s students brought bags of popcorn to class, popped them in the microwave of the honors lounge down the hall, and gobbled the stuff by the handful in the middle of the loftiest class discussions. Snack food is not standard equipment for most courses, but then Das was not teaching a standard course. He was leading two dozen students through “The Movies and God,” a course in which they screened and analyzed eleven films—from Pleasantville to The Passion of the Christ—that touch in some way on religious themes.
Das’s course was one of some sixty offered during the most recent January Term at Elmhurst College. Like most J-Term courses, this one was something of an intellectual detour for all concerned. Though offered out of the Department of Theology and Religion, the student roster included only a handful of theology majors. As for Das, he is better known for his close readings of the Apostle Paul than for parsing Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty.
This is the way it goes during January Term, the mini-session in the heart of the academic year that takes students and teachers alike into unfamiliar corners of the course catalog. J-Term focuses students’ attention, exclusively and intensively, on one class for three and a half weeks. Each winter, inventive “special topics courses” flourish, and even traditional courses tend to be taught in innovative ways. It is the time of year when you are most likely to find business students enrolling in “Chicago’s Great Libraries,” English majors registering for “Digital Game Design,” and nursing students lining up for a light opera performance workshop.
Moreover, for an increasing number of students, J-Term courses mean a departure from campus altogether. Last winter, Elmhurst students could choose from a meaty menu of travel courses. A seminar on the European Union visited London, Paris, and Brussels. A music business course headed to Nashville. An introduction to the business and culture of India explored Madras, Bangalore, and other key cities on the subcontinent. In all, about forty courses took students literally far afield.
It is not just students who feel the spirit of exploration during January Term. For professors, too, January is a time to veer off the well-trodden academic path and indulge in an intellectual passion or two. “For a lot of the faculty, the January Term class is their darling,” says Lance Wilcox, a professor of English who specializes in the work of the 18th-century essayist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson. For much of the year, Wilcox teaches standard fare like “Shakespeare” and “Introduction to Drama.” But during the last January Term, he offered a class that drew on a long-held personal fascination: “Literature of the Civil War.” In a typical three-hour class session, Wilcox and his students wrestled with the combat stories of Ambrose Bierce, studied contemporary poems about the clash between the Monitor and Merrimac, and discussed relevant critical essays. Earlier in the short term, they had attended a performance by a group of folk singers from Tennessee that specializes in the music of the period. “January Term lends itself to these kinds of special topics courses,” says Wilcox. “And I like being able to concoct a course like this. I keep my antennae out, keep reading more, try to be aware of the trends. It’s demanding, but it’s interesting for me to do.”
January Term is not required, and it is not for everyone. Some students pass, electing to work a seasonal job or extend their holiday break. Some professors also opt out, craving a few extra weeks to attend a conference, finish a work of scholarship, or just fix up the house.
At least one professor complained about the approval process that governs proposed January courses, saying it discourages the most adventurous experimentation. “We would like to have more faculty participating, and more of a mix of faculty,” says Earl Meseth, a biology professor and member of the faculty J-Term committee.
At the same time, several dozen faculty step forward each winter to offer J-Term courses, many unlike anything they teach in the regular school year. “January Term is our chance to offer the courses we always wanted to teach but never could,” says Das. “It’s our chance to do the stuff that’s a little different.”
For some students, January Term is their first opportunity to invest themselves exclusively and for an extended period in the field they hope to pursue as a career. It can make a profound and lasting impression.
David Kuebler, ’69, took a course in the College’s very ﬁrst January Term. (It was called the Interim Term in those days.) Kuebler has built an impressive international career as an operatic tenor, but he still recalls his first turn on stage, in a student production of The Marriage of Figaro. The production was staged in the College gymnasium back in January 1968. Since then Kuebler’s career has taken him to other, more storied opera houses, including the Met and La Scala.
A more recent graduate, Isabel Bauer, ’05, found a J-Term offering that was a nearly perfect match for her interest in international relations and developing countries.A native of the former East Germany, Bauer spent a month traveling in India, where she took classes at Madras Christian College and learned at close hand about the challenges facing the region. “It was a really broad education,” she says.
More than 1,000 students enrolled in J-Term courses last winter. As recently as three years ago, the enrollment was more modest. “January Term has been our best-kept secret in some ways,” says Marie Baehr, the associate dean of the faculty. The problem, she says, was that some students failed to see the particular value of the short, concentrated course format. So the administration made an effort to sell students and their parents on the concept. January Term offers one irresistible selling point: the courses are free.
“We have tried to alert them to the opportunity, the free opportunity, to delve into subjects that have always interested them, but they could never find time for,” says Baehr. A number of reluctant students became J-Term converts. “You talk to students who say, ‘I didn’t really want to take this class, but you know what, I loved it.’ So maybe they have to be led there a little bit.”
One-month winter terms were introduced at Elmhurst and other colleges in the 1960s, during an intense period of campus reform and experimentation. The concept was part of a new “4-1-4” academic calendar—a Fall and Spring Term, each lasting four months, flanking the one-month Interim. In the inaugural year, the College offered fifty-six January courses, including the College’s first travel class, to Greece. About 75 percent of students enrolled in a January course.
Last winter, interest in J-Term was high enough to compel the College to add extra courses. One of them was “The Plagues of Nations,” taught by Tamara Marsh, an assistant professor of biology. Marsh describes the course as a kind of bridge between two of her intellectual passions, the sciences and the humanities. She was inspired to develop the course by the history courses she prized as an undergraduate. “In my microbiology courses,” she says, “I often include just in passing episodes from history, like the Typhoid Mary story. I began to wonder if I could teach an entire course of those types of stories.” The resulting course combines elements of biology and history, and covers everything from the role of hemophilia in the fall of the Russian monarchy to the threats posed by today’s bioterrorists.
It is not just the idiosyncratic subject matter that sets some J-Term courses apart. To fit an entire course into an abbreviated three-and-a-half-week mini-term, some classes meet for sessions of four hours or more. That can pose an endurance test for teacher and students alike. Water bottles are as much of a prerequisite as textbooks. Moreover, in a four-hour session, a straight lecture format becomes a recipe for mass napping.
For teachers who are willing to innovate, however, the longer classes open the range of possibilities. When Kevin Olson, an assistant professor of music, was preparing to teach “Music of Praise, Protest and Propaganda,” one of his worries was whether he would be able to hold student interest for nearly four hours at a time. But he took to the format quickly. “I found that I was able to do things in a January Term class that I could never do in a regular class,” he says, “whether it’s showing an extended scene from an opera or just letting the discussion unfold a little longer.”
Olson turned to the Internet to allow the class discussion to go beyond even the extended classroom hours. The class was scheduled to meet three days each week. On off days, Olson asked his students to discuss assigned readings in Internet postings. “On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we were in class talking things out,” he explains. “Then, from Thursday to Sunday, we functioned like an online class.”
Elmhurst’s campus expands dramatically each winter. Last January it grew to include (for a few weeks, anyway) Brussels, Sevilla, Madras, and Montego Bay. Like many of their on-campus counterparts, J-Term travel courses pre-sent opportunities to depart from the more usual academic pursuits. For students, travel courses offer a chance to expand language skills, stretch cultural knowledge, and experience places they had only read or heard about. Sometimes just the change of scenery is enlightening. “People just learn better from traveling,” says Jennifer Boyle, an assistant professor of political science.
Boyle co-taught a travel course on the European Union with stops in Paris, London, and Brussels. Like most J-Term travel courses, her class was offered in conjunction with UMAIE—pronounced “you may”—short for the Upper Midwest Association for Intercultural Education, a consortium of seven colleges with January terms. Boyle worked with Bruce Johnson, an economics professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, to develop and lead the class. Their twenty-six students came from Elmhurst and the other UMAIE member schools.
Courses like Boyle’s sometimes have itineraries that sound like a list of enticing tourist spots; but professors take pains to ensure that their classes are engaged in more than just sightseeing. “We’re not there to be tour guides,” she says. Boyle and Johnson arranged for their students to visit embassies and corporate headquarters and to meet with members of the British Parliament and officials of the European Union. Along the way, the group commandeered a hotel conference room, turning it into a makeshift lecture hall where they reviewed experiences and prepared for upcoming stops.
Each January, Professor of Music Judith Grimes leads a class to Jamaica where her students spend three weeks working in impoverished schools around Montego Bay. The course is offered jointly by the music and education departments. Grimes says some students might be attracted by the prospect of an extended midwinter respite in the Jamaican sunshine, but it is the exposure to life as lived in a much different country that most impresses them. “We visit the schools, but I don’t say we teach there,” says Grimes. “I say we share and we exchange and we learn.” One of the first things Elmhurst students notice, she says, is the poverty in the schools. It is not unusual to see Jamaican youngsters break their pencils in two to share with a classmate when they don’t have enough to go around.
The professor tells of one Elmhurst student who, on a return trip, used almost all of her allotment of two suitcases to ferry donated school supplies to Jamaica. “It’s a life-changing course,” says Grimes. “We bring back better kids than we take.”
As it approaches its fortieth anniversary, January Term, like the rest of the curriculum, remains a work in progress. Revisions are under regular consideration. Until 1994, students were required to take at least one interim course every two years, and the courses carried an extra charge. Since 1995, J-Term has been both optional and free, which has had the odd effect of making the mini-term both easier to participate in and easier to skip.
Other colleges have endured bitter campus arguments over the merit of interim terms. At some, the rigor of January courses has been called into question. Baehr says these are not issues at Elmhurst. “I believe the reason is that we try to keep the interim for academic passions of the faculty. If I, as a faculty member, absolutely love the subject I am teaching, I am not likely to let the students get away with little academic rigor.” In fact, some students find the pace of J-Term a little daunting. “I will say the students at times do complain about how much work they must do in a January Term. They don’t always appreciate the fact that by taking a course in four weeks rather than fourteen, they should be doing two-and-a-half times as much work outside class each week.”
At Elmhurst, much of the recent debate about January Term has centered on its relationship to the general education requirements. Each winter, upper-class students can choose from a fair selection of January courses that satisfy the core requirements. Some students would like to see more such courses offered during J-Term. Some even tell Baehr that they would rather pay for a class that meets their general education requirements than take a free class that does not.
Baehr warns that too many general education courses would change the nature of J-Term, and not for the better. “This was created to offer students experiences they couldn’t get in regular classes,” she says. “We want to get students off the idea that a class is only worth something if they can use it to check off a box toward their degree requirements.”
So January at Elmhurst is likely to remain a month dedicated, at least in part, to the experimental, the idiosyncratic, the far-flung and off-beat. For students contemplating the arrival of another such January, Professor Marsh has a bit of advice. “This is your chance to do something unique. Enjoy it.”
By Andrew Santella