Snorkeling, for credit

Intersession: At some colleges, the January miniterm has mutated to a glorified vacation.

January 12, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The sly smile on Herbert Smith's face tells you he's figured out something you missed. After all, while you're slipping on the ice this week, he's taking 20 Western Maryland College students on a snorkeling and fishing expedition in Central America. Not bad work for a political science professor.

"Fishing and Diving in Belize" is what's known as a January Term course at Western Maryland, one of the school's 35 offerings during this month between the end of the Christmas holidays and the beginning of the second semester.

The intersession - as it is known on most campuses - came into existence in the late 1960s with high hopes for intensive, innovative courses that could enhance the interaction between students and faculty.

Three decades later, the intersession is little more than an extended vacation from the classroom for most students and faculty. It has disappeared at some schools, such as Loyola College and the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

But it lives on in a variety of forms at liberal arts colleges such as Western Maryland and is undergoing something of a resurrection at the University of Maryland, College Park and the Johns Hopkins University.

Smith has no apologies for the way he and chemistry professor Brian Wladkowski are spending their winter break.

He defends the academic content of the course. Students - who pay $1,340 - are required to keep a journal and report on a vertebrate and invertebrate animal that inhabit the coral reef they explore.

And Smith gives impromptu lectures on the fascinating history of this tiny Central American country of 200,000 - studded with Mayan ruins - a former British colony that has been something of a haven for tolerance.

They get two credits. Most opt for pass/fail grading.

"The intersession is something that came out of the '60s, and I happen to think a lot of good things came out of the '60s," Smith said a few days before his departure as snow swirled outside his window.

He made the case that students are going to learn something living for 10 days in another culture, exploring the second-longest barrier reef in the world and interacting with faculty members, no matter what the traditional academic requirements.

Indeed, Smith lamented what he sees as a decline of what is known as the "Jan term" at Western Maryland, where it first arrived in 1969.

"It used to be that students were required to participate in two Jan terms during their four years here," said Smith, who has been at the school since 1973. "Now that's down to one. And I think participation by faculty is declining, too. The January Term is underutilized."

The intersession was invented to do away with an irritating aspect of the academic calendar. When the September-to-June school year was divided into two 4 1/2 - month semesters, the halfway point came in the middle of January.

That meant students came back from their Christmas break and almost immediately headed into exams.

"I used to hate that," says Peter Bardaglio, a history professor at Goucher College where he is acting provost.

"The week after Christmas my family would always go to this wonderful farmhouse in Vermont. I remember sitting there writing papers and studying for exams while the rest of the family was all out on the ski slopes.

"It was pure misery."

To avoid that sort of thing, the semesters were shortened to four months each - September through December and February through May. The January "minimester" was supposed to keep the school year at nine months.

"The intersession is part of the very complicated evolution of institutions of higher education," says Barbara Finkelstein, a professor in the department of education policy and leadership at UMCP.

"It is part of the long series of economic adjustments they have had to make to respond to the clientele who are paying the bill - the students - and to the academic aspirations of their professors," she says.

She sees the fact that the month turned into a vacation for students and a time for research for professors as a simple response to marketplace demand. But similar forces are causing the reinvention of the intersession.

Practical experience

At private schools, this can mean getting practical experiences not available during the school year.

Bardaglio says Goucher has no classroom courses during January - nor requirements for participation - but uses it as a time for foreign study trips and internships.

"This is a time when we hope students will so some stretching and break out of the more conventional modes of learning," he says.

Either a foreign trip - a group of Goucher students is in Ghana studying history and culture - or an internship satisfies the school's requirement of an off-campus experience for graduation.

At Johns Hopkins, there is a 2-year-old attempt to reinvigorate the intersession by offering practical, applied courses rarely seen at the purely academic institution.

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