March 13, 2020

Compliance With the Calendar

Given that the new academic calendar is far from perfect, the University needs to provide clearer guidelines for implementing the changes it proposes.

Provost Ka Yee Lee’s recent announcement regarding changes to UChicago’s academic calendar has been the subject of heated debate. The email highlights the Committee to Review the Academic Calendar’s report, which proposes several structural changes to the calendar starting in autumn 2021. While the 55-page report covers a variety of changes, the most salient ones include the shaving away of half a week of instruction every quarter and the shortening of reading period from the Thursday and Friday before finals week to just the Monday of finals week. According to the report, many of these changes are meant to ease the “pressure pinch-points” during the term.

Student reactions to the changes to the academic calendar have been mixed, as the deluge of satirical memes UChicago students have crafted goes to show. While these changes will probably have the largest impact on students, they are indications of an encumbered organizational system that struggles to cater to the different groups of the UChicago community. The implementation committee needs to provide clearer reasoning for these changes, well-enforced guidelines for implementation, and practical responses to the difficulties the new system will generate.

The reduction of the academic instruction period from nine-and-a-half to nine weeks per quarter will force professors to make instructional changes, which is not only cumbersome for professors, but will negatively impact students by cutting down on key learning time. With this new change, instructors will face a trade-off between cramming the current amount of material into a nine-week period and requiring students to spend time outside of class on content to keep the amount of content the same. The report suggests “one response is to reclaim valuable instructional periods by scheduling mid-terms for evenings or weekends (suggested by the program in Economics) or to forego one discussion or laboratory session for the mid-term exam.” Of the two, the discussion/lab session midterms seem more practical for students, as they do not encroach on students’ free time—however, some classes do not have either of these sessions. For the ones that do, the material covered during those sessions would have to be crammed into the remaining contact hours.

The thought of evening or weekend exams makes me glad that I will (hopefully) graduate in June 2021. Fun might be dead, but let’s not send it to hell. The report does recognize that this option would impinge on other student commitments but does not offer a recommendation regarding the optimal solution. Whether or not the University is going to proceed with weekend and weeknight exams (which are flagrant intrusions of students’ free time), it needs to establish a clear framework for both instructors and students in terms of exam scheduling. Leaving it up to individual professor discretion will lead to scheduling conflicts and further strain students’ academic planning.

In the autumn quarter, the change to the length of reading period is more a transformation than a reduction. Reading period will consist of the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday leading up to finals, but the extension of Thanksgiving break to span the entire week somewhat counterbalances this change. Though the extended break is meant to ease some of the pressure of the intense quarter and allow students to relax, I anticipate that some students will use it to catch up on work and revise for the approaching finals week. Importantly, this makeshift reading period relies more than it currently does on students to determine their own study schedules. For many students, time pressure acts as the strongest impetus of productivity, which means the Thanksgiving break in eighth week may not be particularly beneficial for studying. Thus, while the extended break will give students a much-needed respite from the breakneck pace of the shortened quarter, it is ultimately up to students how they choose to spend that extra time. 

Shortening reading period, however, is problematic in its own right. The report’s recommendation that the administration “establish a three-day Reading Period” is a desperate marketing attempt to soften the blow of cutting a day from the existing reading period—the current calendar counts reading period as Thursday and Friday, while the proposed new period is Saturday through Monday. Saturday and Sunday should not be counted as part of reading period—shortening reading period presses students to cram rather than properly absorb course material. I understand that UChicago prides itself on its academic intensity, but cutting down reading period in this manner belies its commitment to learning. It’s admittedly tough to determine the Goldilocks reading period—excessively lengthening it would not necessarily improve productivity and would come at the cost of instruction time, which could happen with the extension of Thanksgiving break. As long as UChicago maintains the quarter system, a weeklong reading period each quarter is unfeasible without ending spring quarter in mid- or late-June.

In an appendix in the report, one of the committee members Kaesha Freyaldenhoven (A.B. ’19, A.M. ’19) acknowledges that “UChicago’s two-day reading period is already shorter than that of most peer institutions.” Limiting comparisons to colleges on the quarter system, the evaluation mentions Stanford’s “End Quarter” and Northwestern’s “Reading Week,” both of which hold classes the week before finals, but don’t allow graded assignments or tests. The committee should consider prohibiting graded assignments or tests in ninth week to avoid the infamous ninth-week “midterm” and afford students some extra time to study given the shorter reading period. The shortening of reading period by one day will undoubtedly harm students—whether this contraction is a price worth paying for an extended Thanksgiving, possible elongation of spring break and early spring quarter end date of June 1 remains to be seen.

The time crunch spills over into finals week, which the committee recommends shortening to four days. Some may argue that the reduced time would affect all students equally, but this is not necessarily the case. The report highlights student complaints about professors violating reading period policies, giving in-class finals in 10th week, and moreover, notes that deadlines for papers can often be “erratic.” Due to the Core and interdisciplinary breadth of courses at UChicago, each student’s finals schedule is a crapshoot. Some have their finals spread out over the week, while others might have two essays due during reading period and two finals on Monday. The report also mentions that the constricted exam period could disproportionately affect students with disabilities. A shortened finals week will compound the difficulties students face, especially because many students use the time in between exams to study. One solution the report offers is that “course listings include an indication of whether a given course is to be evaluated primarily by E(xams) or by P(apers or projects).” This would ease student planning and allow more effective scheduling of exam rooms and timings during finals week, but only if it is accompanied by transparent exam policies that don’t unnecessarily encroach on students’ free time.

The report urges that professors adhere to reading period and exam policies, but the administration needs to take concrete actions to ensure compliance. It mentions that the avenue of student complaints should be the ombudsperson, and that “The Office of the Ombudsperson must be strengthened and its purview extended to include recourse for violations of instructional guidelines.” However, having an office where students can rat out their professors should be a last resort. Instead, the University should maintain adherence primarily by establishing clear policies regarding acceptable exams and assignments in the week leading up to and including finals week. Should professors violate these rules, the admin may need to  reconsider the current “minimal systematic oversight of faculty compliance.”

It goes without saying that stricter exam policies will benefit some students more than others. Some students may prefer finishing some of their final exams, essays, and projects before finals week so that they can focus on the remaining few, while others may be able to leave campus earlier if all their exams are on Monday or Tuesday, or if they have papers due at the end of finals week. Standardization of exam and paper policies may inconvenience students at this extreme by leaving less up to luck, but will ultimately benefit those whose finals schedules are distressed by policy violations and erratic due dates.

The proposed changes to the calendar reveal tension between several groups of the University community—students with different priorities in divergent disciplines, professors and instructors, or the administration in charge of University-wide policy, among other parties—who often have conflicting wishes. Within the stringent bounds of the quarter system, attempting to relieve student pressure by extending breaks while also squeezing instructional and exam prep time to end the year by June seems an unwinnable endeavor. Without definitive data on the effects of these policy changes, there is no telling whether they will do more harm than good. Consequently, 2021–22 will be an experimental year. The administration and implementation committee must gather more data and further deliberate on the impact of these changes, design transparent policies to ease the transition for students, instructors, and other members of the community, and clearly communicate an exhaustive list of the recommendations which will be implemented.

Soham Mall is a third-year in the College.