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silly season

It's the last week of winter quarter here at RIT, and we're slowly sliding towards exams and then break. I've never liked this quarter--partly because it occurs during the darkest, coldest, dreariest part of the year, and partly because of the two-week break that occurs after the third week of classes (we start in December and end in February).

This quarter I really struggled, and I know I didn't do my best teaching. It wasn't a disaster (at least I don't think so), but I didn't have the energy level and enthusiasm that I know makes a big difference in the classroom.

Last week, RIT's new president announced that we're going to begin a transition to a semester system here at RIT, and I'm pretty happy about that change. There are many things I dislike about the quarter system--the split winter quarter, obviously, but also the compressed time frame (ten weeks is simply not enough time for me to really get to know my students, nor does it give as much "soak time" for concepts as I'd like), and the extra set of course preps we have each year. We don't really ever get a break as faculty, because we spend all of exam week grading, and all of the break week prepping for the next quarter. If you get sick during the quarter, or go to a conference, you lose a significant amount of instructional time--which is bad for both instructors and students. The only significant upside to quarters is that it's seen as an opportunity to offer a wider range of courses.

While many of our faculty were enthusiastic about the idea of switching to a semester system, our students were less happy about the idea. Interestingly, however, student government ended up holding two votes. In their official vote, where they expressed the feelings of their constituents, the student representatives voted in favor of keeping quarters. When asked to vote (secretly) as to their own preferences, the same representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of semesters. The student body president hypothesized that the representatives were perhaps the best informed about the pros and cons of various calendar options, and that the more they knew the more likely they were to see the benefits of the change. (That hasn't stopped disgruntled students and alumni from forming this Facebook group and bemoaning the fact that they think the value of an RIT degree is about to evaporate...)

Some students are concerned that semesters rather than quarters will limit the range of places that they can work for co-ops. However, when you look at the actual numbers, the vast majority of our students already tend to spend more than one quarter with a single employer. So, if you're in a program that currently requires three quarters of co-op, you probably were doing one single quarter co-op and one two-quarter co-op. In the semester model, you'd do one semester at each.

From my point of view, this is an amazing opportunity for our faculty to take a hard look at where our fields are going, what we want our curriculum to contain, and what we want our students to take away from their time here--and to redesign our curriculum from the ground up to make sure that we're accomplishing what we need to do. For those students, alumni, and employers who are afraid that "increasing retention" is code for "dumbing things down," I can assure you that there's nobody at RIT who would benefit from the latter. Making programs better doesn't mean making them easier, and it's not always true that you need to suffer in order to achieve.

This change won't happen overnight--in fact, it's going to be a three-year transition, with semester-based instruction beginning in the fall of 2013. During those three years, we'll definitely be looking for input from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and employers. I hope everyone will start to see this as a real opportunity for meaningful change in our curriculum, and an end to the "silly season" of split winter quarters.

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