Dartmouth Mulls Term Schedule Impacts

Hanover — Dartmouth College’s revised four-quarter academic calendar gives students more flexibility to pursue interests off-campus but may be curbing cohesion among classmates and also negatively affecting some class scheduling.

These were some of the points raised Monday at a lunchtime forum attended by 100 students, staff and faculty to discuss Dartmouth’s “D-Plan” and its impact on the college community.

In the D-Plan, the college’s academic calendar is divided into four quarters of classes. Though sophomores are required to stay on campus for the summer term, students may study away from campus or take internships during other academic terms, giving them the ability to capitalize on opportunities unavailable to students at other colleges who are in class.

The D-Plan was revised in 2012 to begin the fall quarter earlier in September and conclude before Thanksgiving, creating a six-week break before classes resume in January. The recent restructuring of the academic calendar simplifies travel for students from overseas and provides the opportunity for faculty to work on research, but dissatisfaction remains over the impact the shorter-running terms have on the campus community.

Under the current structure, the college has roughly 3,600 undergraduates on campus during its fullest quarter, the fall term, a number which drops by up to 400 students in the winter term when students leave for opportunities off-campus.

“They’re bopping around,” said Bruce Sacerdote, professor of economics and the session’s moderator.

Many at the session voiced concern over how social connections among students are disrupted because they have to switch housing upon their return to campus. Sophomore students returning after a freshman summer away faced a particular challenge, said Deputy Director of Athletics Bob Ceplikas, a 1978 Dartmouth graduate.

“Talking to students now, they’re in a different residence hall coming back sophomore year,” Ceplikas said, and are separated from the network of friendships built during their first year.

Director of International Student Programs Steve Silver said “the D-Plan is one of the reasons the Greek system is so strong and healthy.” Though students may be gone for entire terms, the Greek system provides a form of continuity — the sense that “join us and you will always have a home,” Silver said.

Iris Yu, a Dartmouth senior, said that though “there are definitely some drawbacks to social life, it’s been great for me as a student.” The current schedule has given Yu the time for several off-campus opportunities, including a term spent at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., and programs in Berlin and Munich.

In addition to the social effects on the campus community, many professors voiced concern on the system’s academic impact.

Celia Chen, a research professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, said she “felt teaching in the 10-week interval is a race to the finish ... We don’t allow students to think deeply about what they’re learning.”

Scot Drysdale, professor of computer science, spoke of the difficulty students faced in planning schedules, especially when courses are not offered frequently or required prerequisites to enroll.

“If it’s something important, it needs to be offered at least twice a year,” Drysdale said.

The summer terms can be a particular challenge. Thomas Cormen, the chairman of the Department of Computer Science, said that “in our department, we offer one course over the summer.”

Cormen noted that because of the difficulty of finding faculty in the summer, courses have been taught by visiting professors and graduate students.

Drysdale said that while he taught summer classes before he started a family, once he became a father, teaching during what traditionally is a summer break for professors is “a big sacrifice.”

The new term structure affects not only Dartmouth students and faculty, but is also being felt by Hanover merchants.

Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin said in an e mail that “previously, Dartmouth students would do a bit of holiday shopping and celebrating after Thanksgiving.” But now that students do not return to campus between Thanksgiving and January, “neither they nor their families if they come to retrieve them spend much of anything downtown,” said Griffin.

Additionally, what “no one had anticipated was the departure of the faculty once the students leave. No faculty means far fewer retail trips and far fewer restaurant meals.”

Donna Langlais, dining room manager for Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery, said that business noticeably slowed after Thanksgiving when students were away.

“We did miss them a lot, the kids are part of our family; they’re here for us and we’re here for them,” she said.

The slower pace gave the restaurant time to try new initiatives; the chefs were able to come up with new ideas for the holidays, including a gingerbread decorating night for children.

The discussion of the D-plan and its impact is ongoing. Sacerdote, the moderator, said in an e-mail there would be “several other forums and opportunities for staff, students, faculty to submit ideas in writing via our dedicated websites,” and committees would be asked to weigh in on the questions raised.

The forums — a second was to be held Monday night as well — were the first in a series called “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” which will focus on initiatives announced by Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon in December.

Joanna Johnson can be reached at joanna.lee.johnson@gmail.com.