J-Term courses seek evaluation

By Lisa Schulz

For some, the holiday break means migrating home for hibernation. For others, it means nestling inside Columbia’s buildings to analyze zombie movies and experience other peculiar annual courses for spring semester credit.

J-Term courses, held from Jan. 3–14—one week shorter this year than previously—are “disarrayed” and in need of re-evaluation, according to Pan Papacosta, professor in the Science and Mathematics Department. Papacosta, chair of the Faculty Senate Academic Affairs Committee that founded J-Term, discussed the topic at the Senate’s Nov. 8 meeting, as previously reported by The Chronicle on Dec. 5.

Data regarding the effectiveness and popularity of J-Term courses have not been evaluated since the program started in 2007. With consultants preoccupied with prioritization of programs for the regular semester, attention to J-Term courses could be delayed, Papacosta said.

“Some departments never [have] a J-Term,” he said. “Some experiences are wonderful because they involve field trips overseas, which was originally one of the main intentions. But it seems no one is keeping an eye on evaluating the J-Term experience as a whole.”

The Academic Affairs Committee plans to create a J-Term subcommittee task force to conduct research on attendance and structure, which would then be presented to the Senate and the administration for changes, he said.

The criteria for creating a J-Term course—worth a range of one to three credit hours—also needs evaluation, Papacosta said. Currently, it’s a unique experience with a different curriculum than regular semester courses, he said.

The “Zombies in Popular Media” J-Term course, taught for five years by Brendan Riley, associate English professor, is one of the eight three-credit courses offered, while 13 two-credit courses and 27 one-credit courses were offered in January 2012.

“The curriculum in general, I don’t think the school really embraced it as something people do,” Riley said. “It’s sort of a side note, and people don’t realize it’s here or don’t make an effort.”

Inspired by a horror film course offered during the winter when he was a student, Riley incorporated his regular teachings of new media and writing into the analysis and discussion of zombies in a daily two-hour class followed by a three-hour movie screening during the week.

With winter break shortened, Riley’s curriculum branched out with online discussions and a presentation during the spring semester. But Emily Roth, junior fiction major who took Riley’s course solely to fulfill requirements, said the benefit of enrolling in a J-Term course is reducing one’s course load during the spring.

“I wouldn’t have taken [a] class that’s just one credit during J-Term,” she said. “It’s nice to get an actual class out of the way.”

Riley said winter courses at his former university were well-attended because students were required to take them three out of four years.

Attendance in J-Term courses has increased this year compared to last year, although no attendance statistics could be provided, Papacosta said.

The cooperatively low rate of attendance at Columbia may reflect faculty members’ availability to offer rigorous courses in addition to the required three spring semester courses, Riley said. While faculty are paid for each additional J-Term class, time can be a bigger priority, he said.

“[Faculty doesn’t] have time to offer the same level of experience you’d expect from a full semester, at least without significant effort,” Riley said.

However, short courses encourage a stronger focus when learning and a chance for students to dabble in other disciplines, said Burt Burdeen, adjunct faculty member in the Radio Department who taught the J-Term course Great Voices of Radio. There was a three-student increase in the class from last year, but classroom participation remains low, he said.

At most, J-Term courses should be worth one credit, Burdeen said. Even though lack of participation could occur in any class, Burdeen said five sessions of J-Term isn’t enough for students to become familiar with instructors.

“A lot of kids are just taking it for the credit because it is an easy credit,” he said. “I’m not asking too much from them, except I would like to have more dialogue, more curiosity—and it only happens with a couple of people.”

Papacosta said the college needs more interdisciplinary courses and collaboration to benefit faculty and students, but the distribution of credits would be problematic and needs examination.

Taking multiple one-credit courses in the Radio Department to “shave off extra credit hours” was helpful for Steve Ahlman, junior radio major, who took ad-lib and narration courses that were not offered during the regular semester and two radio courses in January 2011. Even though returning to routine classes was difficult after holiday break, the courses were enjoyable, he said.

“It’s given me opportunities that I wouldn’t normally have and wouldn’t even think were possible,” Ahlman said.