Balk: Schedule recommended by task force is flawed


Tim Balk, Opinion Editor

When I read Monday’s news that the 2015 Faculty Task Force on the Undergraduate Academic Experience recommended a revamp to Northwestern’s academic schedule, the change to the schedule initially looked appealing to me. The proposed “10-5-5-10” calendar would bring NU students to campus in late August and provide them with a 10 to 14-day break halfway through Winter Quarter.

There are clear benefits to such a schedule realignment, and I immediately considered the fact that the new schedule would bring students to campus in time for the start of football season. Think of all the NU students who would have gotten to enjoy the Stanford game this year if such a schedule was in place!

But a further examination of the schedule change led me to a blunt conclusion: It is a bad idea.

Slapping a break in the middle of Winter Quarter would be a logistical nightmare and a stress inducer.

For all its strengths — and I am certainly a proponent of the quarter system — NU’s calendar turns each academic period into a mad rush, with professors trying to work mini-miracles and impart a semester’s worth of knowledge in a hellishly fast-paced 10-week period. The ultimate result is often a dizzying dash to the finish line, with professors struggling to deal with the obstacles created by various holidays (such as the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) and zany class times.

Placing a break in the middle of Winter Quarter would compound those issues, creating a pair of even more fraught five-week periods before and after the holidays. Neither students nor professors would find scheduling around such a break easy.

Furthermore, the revamped schedule would likely exacerbate the very problems it is intended to correct.

Student stress and mental health are huge problems at NU, and the task force proposed changes that might help to alleviate such issues, including the expansion of Counseling and Psychological Services, making the first quarter of classes a pass/fail term and allowing students a 13th quarter of financial aid. All good ideas.

The schedule change, though, would likely increase academic stress and rob students of a true winter vacation.

Even if the break between the two five-week periods was officially assignment-free, students would spend the holidays with the cloud of half-completed classes hanging over their heads, assuming that 10-week classes were still offered during Winter Quarter.

Many classes at NU are cumulative or involve projects that need to be started well before the midpoint in the quarter.  

A student starting slowly in a course might feel compelled to play catch up during the break; another just beginning to understand a difficult subject would find his or her momentum broken by an awkward intermission in an already compressed term. Students would inevitably find themselves doing work, or at least worrying about work, throughout the holiday break.

A break halfway through Winter Quarter would not only be academically suspect, it would also cause problems for professors who wish to assign longer term projects or cumulative finals.  

Five-week, half-credit classes have also been suggested for the winter session. I personally question the effectiveness of such short classes.

As hard as it is to fully explore a subject in 10 weeks, it would be even harder in five. From a purely academic perspective, the schedule proposal is a nightmare.

I recognize the adjustments to the schedule would help facilitate internship and study abroad opportunities currently made impossible by NU’s unique schedule. Still, such benefits should not come at the expense of learning or mental health.

I applaud the task force for thinking outside the box, and making a modest suggestion for improving an imperfect academic calendar. Many of their other suggestions are wise, and the fact that they considered student feedback in forming their recommendations is quite commendable.

The quarter system carries with it a variety of inherent problems, along with the benefits of the opportunity to try more classes and get bad classes over quickly. Chief among those problems is the high pressure atmosphere, which I think might be reduced by a change to the three-class-per-quarter standard used at Dartmouth College.

The proposed schedule, on the other hand, will only exacerbate student stress and get in the way of students and professors. All three regular academic quarters should be consistent in setup and duration.

Tim Balk is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.