Advice

Quartered or Semestered?

The effects of the academic calendar on your psyche

Swallowtail Garden Seeds / Creative Commons

December 13, 2015

Question: We’re on the semester system, and I write this while slogging through the last weeks. Everyone is sick: coughing, weepy, sluggish, even pimply. Not a pretty sight. I’m told that the quarter system is less tiring and that the weeks fly by. True? Or is it all hopeless?

Answer: Yes, it is hopeless — if you are asking, "How can I be happy, serene, and jovial at the end of an academic term in chilly weather?" Sometimes one simply has to accept the end-of-term dreadfulness. You might not get an A in everything. Your students may not all love you. And the Nobel Prize committee may pass over you, yet again. Ms. Mentor hopes your cat is still willing to snuggle.

It’s natural to feel woeful on gloomy, snowy, drizzly days. If you are suffering now, please get yourself a hot toddy, tea, or at least a carrot stick or a pretzel. Use it to conduct your imaginary orchestra of whiners. You are not alone.

Now would you be happier if you were quartered?

The traditional quarter system (10 weeks) does seem more poetic. In fall quarter, the leaves turn flaming orange and hectic red, a feast for the eyes and a symbol of the flare of life and the decay awaiting us all. In winter quarter, snow blankets the quads. Icicles tinkle from the trees. Jack Frost nips at your nose, and folks dress up like Inuits. In spring quarter, ice melts, birds tweet, and the world turns a brilliant green. Everyone falls in love, and then it’s over.

But under the prosaic semester system (15 or 16 weeks), you go from Labor Day to turkey day in one long swoop, maybe broken up by football or Halloween escapes. Then there’s the Yuletide frenzy. When spring semester starts, still in the winter, you whiz through the panorama of all the seasons. You persevere through it all — shedding mittens, shlepping umbrellas, donning sunscreen. Somehow you endure and finish the semester.

Is the poetic quarter better than the pragmatic semester? Ms. Mentor finds that the Quarters Versus Semesters Question is — well — rather undertheorized. She won’t even call it a debate, since no one seems to be fighting.

Roughly 70 percent of colleges are on the semester system, but some noted institutions are on quarters: Dartmouth, Northwestern, Oregon State, Stanford. Colorado College has the unique "block plan," in which students take just one course at a time, for three and a half weeks.

The actual advantages of quarters, according to Ms. Mentor’s consultants and her wide and vast reading, are these: They are over faster. Students get more breaks. The advantages of semesters: Subjects can be studied in depth. For summer jobs and internships, students on the quarter system have to begin later. Those on semesters have to quit earlier.

What’s missing, Ms. Mentor finds, is any proof that one or the other is better for education. Do students retain knowledge better with quarters of semesters? Among educationists, there has long been the belief that young pupils lose some of their newly learned math or vocabulary skills over the long summer vacation. But do college students unlearn if they have more breaks?

"Gemma," a therapist of Ms. Mentor’s acquaintance, believes that in students "the pineal gland takes a big dip between semesters." But she has no solid proof.

And what do holidays do? If they’re in very heated Thanksgiving-dinner arguments about politics, do college students gain or lose in verbal acuity? Do they do a better job of sulking?

O, there is so much we do not know.

Meanwhile, Ms. Mentor has not forgotten the adults in the room. Are quarters or semesters better for faculty morale and energy?

For every thing, there is a naysayer. "Selwyn," a professor-researcher, lauds "the old blessed quarter system, an artifact of our agricultural founders" — and finds semesters appalling. "Too long, and too much evidence that they never will learn what I keep teaching them. Who needs such reminders?" (Ms. Mentor thinks Selwyn is a classic burnout who needs to quit teaching, but he hasn’t asked her advice on that front.)

Even for the most enthusiastic semester teachers, there is an 11th-week lull. Then at the end of each semester, there’s an emotional ambivalence — happiness that it’s over, sadness that you’ll miss your best students, envy of your colleagues who’ve accomplished more. Already, there’s hope, fear, and anxiety about starting up again.

With 10-week quarters, you get to experience that surging stage fright three times a year, not just two.

Some struggle bravely against the long semester energy drain. "Jerome," a history professor who dreads his tired students’ bleary eyes, now wears a bright orange sweater for teaching. He’s a beacon of vitality, and only one malcontent has griped that the sweater "hurts my eyes, messes up my mind." For that, Jerome has a historian’s long perspective: "Some youngsters will always be ungrateful wretches." His discipline, he knows, is particularly well-suited to semesters — to a long narrative sweep.

Are other subjects taught better in quarters or semesters? In STEM fields, reshaping a three-quarter course into two semesters may mean a less-rational allocation of topics. According to the engineering grapevine, this has happened with some programs. Ms. Mentor will not name names.

Why have most universities shifted to semesters? Ms. Mentor thinks it’s about money. It’s more expensive to start up three terms a year, with students moving in and out of dorms, classrooms repaired and prepared, and staff geared up for another round of orientation and opening ceremonies. With quarters, the hard and sad work of hiring and replacing adjuncts has to take place more often.

Ms. Mentor does not know whether semesters or quarters will benefit you, her individual readers. But she urges you, in 2016, to be perspicacious and sagacious. And do it all the time.

Question: If I am a hardworking student who walks to school in the snow all year round, uphill both ways all the time, does it matter if I’m semestered or quartered?

Answer: No.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor, who believes there is a season for everything, rejoices every year when Yuletide is over. She can stop saying, "Bah humbug" to mawkish well-wishers. She does cheer the current battles about free speech and hate speech on our nation’s campuses. If education doesn’t sometimes make you angry, you are perhaps doing it wrong.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes rants, gossip, queries, and whatever other tidbits her flock wishes to vouchsafe her. In the new year, she particularly welcomes words like "vouchsafe" and "besmirched" as her small effort to preserve vocabulary in our barbarous age of lol, omg, and like.

She also invites nominations of academic novels for her annual column in late spring. It is never too early to be novel.

Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, identifying details are combusted, and anonymity is guaranteed. Ms. Mentor’s term has no limits. She plans to be immortal.

C Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her email address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.