A 40-Year Ride
In 1965–66, Bates unveiled a new academic calendar: two semesters plus an extra spring term. A Studebaker in Mustang times, the new calendar was mostly unpopular with faculty and students and it was revamped again four years later.
But one vestige of that experiment remains today: Short Term, which in 2006 marked its 40th renewal.
Beloved by students in its middle age, Short Term cruises along despite some design flaws, such as the way it compresses the fall and especially the winter semesters, and the way some students adopt a laissez-faire sense of fun during Short Term that reverberates through the ranks.
At its best, however, Short Term and its courses provide what psychologist and Dean of the Faculty Jill Reich calls “meaningfulness of task.” She’s studied the development of perception, memory, and learning in children, and she says that when students attach great meaning to an experience — such as the Short Term unit “Roller Coasters: Theory, Design, and Properties,” which in 2005 included a field trip to Cedar Point Amusement Park, in Ohio — “they’re better able to engage in the kind of complex thinking and problem solving that we seek to teach them.”
For the faculty, Short Term can simplify and energize teaching. “Students pursue one set of problems, and faculty teach one set of students — that’s the great virtue of Short Term,” says Professor of History Michael Jones, who, with Gerald Bigelow, lecturer in environmental studies, is debuting a course this year that takes students to the Shetland Islands to excavate a late-medieval farmstead.
In addition, Jones says, Short Term’s focused single-subject approach pays off with “improved esprit, identification as a major, and intellectual atmosphere.” That’s especially true for majors-only courses like “Introduction to Abstraction,” aka Math Camp.
History shows that Short Term arrived with a new calendar in 1965–66 featuring two semesters, an April graduation, then a two-month spring term into late June. Bates marketed it as a way for students get through Bates in three years by taking extra courses, but the underlying reason may have been economics: The new plan would keep the doors open longer and hasten the flow of brains through Bates. Indeed, President Charles F. Phillips, its champion, predicted eventual “year-round operation” for Bates.
History also shows that Phillips had perfectly misjudged a-changing times. The Mirror, reflecting opinion on the ground in 1968, dissed the plan as an “academic endurance race.” While other colleges were giving students and faculty more academic freedom (hence Colby’s January Plan, begun four years earlier), the rhetoric around Bates’ new calendar spoke of speed, time saving, and efficiency.
In 1969, President T. Hedley Reynolds announced Bates’ return to a traditional academic schedule, but one that retained Short Term. (Bates still offers a three-year degree program.) For the first time, a Bates president acknowledged a more student-centered approach to academic administration. “Our revised plan recognizes individual needs,” Reynolds said.
Under Reynolds, the faculty insisted that students take only two Short Terms in four years, ensuring an uncrowded campus and a relaxed time and place “conceived essentially in terms of special programs,” in the words of a faculty committee in 1968 — code for courses involving field trips and other experimental offerings.
That culture remains today. In her own academic training, Lillian Nayder, professor of English, never took an education course, and she’s never offered a Bates course that’s cross-listed as an education credit. But in Short Term 2006 she debuted such a course, “Children’s Writing Workshop,” which brought Bates students to a New Gloucester elementary school to teach creative writing.
Jones and Bigelow’s Shetland Islands course takes place this July, when the weather’s best. “We’ve moved cautiously into experimenting outside the traditional term,” says Reich, “because our goal for Short Term has to be quality.” The Shetland course, plus one in August during the Bates Dance Festival, “seem to be good ones to use to put our big toe in the water,” she says.
Besides Short Term’s 40th anniversary, 2006 also saw another landmark academic event, as the faculty approved the first major revision of distribution requirements, or “General Education,” in more than 25 years. (See President Hansen’s column.) With Gen Ed settled, says Reich, “the faculty may now turn to considering specific aspects of our curriculum to ensure that they achieve the high-quality learning experiences that characterize a Bates education.”
For some faculty, Short Term creates a three-part academic calendar that is something of a “whirl,” says Nayder, one with more stops and starts than Old Faithful. “We’ve got two intense semesters with hardly any time between. You do feel a bit weathered by the time Short Term begins.”
“The cost of being able to focus on a single exploration is paid for by trying to push too much into too small a time in the regular academic year,” says historian Michael Jones. “So any Short Term course ought to be really good because intellectually they cost a lot.”
Then there’s concern about what Admissions staffers like to call the “laid-back Short Term atmosphere.” Short Term grades don’t count toward GPAs, students don’t evaluate courses, and the weather’s nice (or at least better than February). Thus the term has a “festival” feel, says Nayder. “The atmosphere changes, and it can be difficult to transform that feeling into something academically productive.”
For Reich, for now, Short Term’s positives outweigh the negatives. “But we have to find a better way to solve the cons,” she says. “Are we utilizing the time in the most effective way? Is it really getting us where we need to get?”