Calendar aims for balance

As Yale approaches the end of the first full academic year under a new University calendar, students, faculty and administrators are contemplating how best to allocate the days that make up a school year — an effort that requires careful balancing.

In January 2011, University President Richard Levin and Yale College Dean Mary Miller announced that Yale College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences would implement a new calendar in the 2012–’13 school year which would make the fall and spring semesters equal in length, while adding a five-day break to the fall semester and shortening the reading and finals periods of both semesters. Though students and professors said the fall break came as a welcome respite after midterms in October, they also raised concerns that the changes result in heightened anxiety and stress at the end of the semester. But any change to an academic calendar requires a give-and-take between downtime and classtime, and administrators said it is too early to tell whether the new calendar found the correct balance.

“Whenever you do a calendar, there are always tradeoffs — there is no perfect calendar that satisfies everyone,” said John Meeske, associate dean of Yale College and a member of the University Calendar Committee. “So far I have been largely pleased, but I think it wasn’t a slam dunk by any means.”

Yale College Dean Mary Miller said changing the University calendar had been on the agenda since well before she became dean in 2008. Responding in part to almost 20 years’ worth of student demand for a fall break, the University Calendar Committee proposed the new format, which equalizes class days at 64 per semester and reduces finals period from eight to six days. There were previously 63 class days in the fall and 65 in the spring.

From discussions with the college deans, Meeske said the committee realized that students did not use all of Yale’s reading week for work, adding that the committee ultimately decided to shave two days off the reading week. Overall, Miller said equalizing the number of class, exam and reading week days across the two semesters is an “overarching good.”

Students and faculty interviewed expressed mixed opinions about the new calendar. Though the professors and students interviewed generally agreed that fall break was a positive addition, all said the shortened reading week compounded stress at the end of the semester.

“I always felt it was really hard, especially for new students, to have 12 straight weeks of classes without a break,” said philosophy professor Michael Della Rocca. “That was a long slog.”

Still, Della Rocca said he would like to see a schedule that keeps the fall break but does not cut into reading week so students can have more time to reflect on the semester and complete final papers.

English professor Margaret Homans said she will be less likely to assign long final papers if reading week remains shortened because she does not think students have time to complete lengthier assignments sufficiently under the new calendar.

“[Last semester] everyone got their final papers in on time, but I think it was very stressful and not an optimal experience for them,” Homans said. “I guess I just view reading period as really sacrosanct — you all really need it.”

According to a Jan. 10 survey conducted by the Yale College Council, 75 percent of 1,340 students said they felt the shortened reading week adversely affected their academic performance, though 62 percent said they would keep fall break even at the expense of a shorter reading period.

Martin Shapiro ’14 said he is concerned that the new calendar will be more detrimental in the spring semester because it will cut into Yale traditions such as residential college festivals and Spring Fling.

“Reading period is traditionally the time when people can relax and prepare before locking themselves in a library for days on end, and I think we’re really going to feel the lack of that this spring,” Shapiro said.

Meeske said the committee will solicit feedback from students and faculty and consider “tweaks” to remedy negative effects, though he said large-scale changes would take more time to implement. But both Miller and Meeske said the four class cancellations as a result of severe weather this year will make it difficult to evaluate the new calendar in its first year.

“I think this year’s calendar has been so pushed and pulled by the dramatic and violent weather that we’ve experienced,” Miller said. “It’s hard to judge anything from this first year.”

Reading week this year begins on Friday, April 26, and finals will take place from Thursday, May 2 to Tuesday, May 7.

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