Monday, January 04, 2016


Best Intersession Class You Ever Took

What’s the best intersession class you ever took?

I’ll narrow it down.  By “intersession” I mean a very short-term class, typically offered for two or three weeks in January.  

January terms are relatively common in higher ed, since they fill a gap in the calendar, but they get sort of ignored in most discussions of both curriculum and student success.  We talk about semesters and the “summer melt,” and sometimes summer boot camps, but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard someone mention January terms or intersessions in the context of higher ed policy discussions, other than around financial aid.  

At their best, intersession classes offer a kind of focus that most classes just can’t.  Because they stuff so much class time into such a brief window, they fairly demand almost exclusive attention from students.  I’ve had faculty tell me that intersession classes are their favorite ones to teach, because for two or three weeks, the students don’t do anything else.  They have to jump in with both feet.  

Perhaps as a function of self-selection, and perhaps because the short calendar doesn’t give much time for life to get in the way, pass rates for intersession classes have usually been much higher than for semester-based classes.  (At HCC, they were 15 to 20 points higher, year after year.)  It worked incredibly well for many 100-level gen ed classes.  It also worked well as a catch-up period for students who took developmental math in the fall, and just needed another week or two to pass it.  It worked incredibly well in classes like Nutrition, or Baking, where having really long days in the teaching kitchen allowed for more complicated and ambitious projects than could usually be done.

At least theoretically, I bet it would work well for language immersion.  Spend all day, every day, for several weeks speaking a language, and you’d have to pick up something.  

That said, I’d be wary of trying to stuff, say, English Composition into that format.  Even with long class times and plenty of in-class writing, the feedback (and grading) would just be too time-consuming.  I’m not saying it couldn’t be done, but I’ve never seen it done, and I have a hard time imagining it.  If someone has done it well, I’d love to know how.

In my student days, the January term was given over to interdisciplinary stuff.  (Given the need for credits to transfer, we’re more limited in the ability to do that here.)  My favorite was the one I took my sophomore year.  It was 1988, and the topic was Gay and Lesbian Politics in America.  For 1988, that was pretty daring.  The course was team-taught, nobody knew what to expect, and I remember being floored both by the content and by Wendy Brown’s ability to turn phrase after phrase.  Her smart-stuff-per-minute ratio was the highest I’ve seen, before or since, and she managed to be clear and understandable while she did it.  It was the verbal equivalent of landing consecutive triple axles while juggling.  There were times it was all I could do not to applaud.

All of which is by way of asking you, my wise and worldly readers: what’s the best intersession class you ever took?  For bonus points, what made it great?

I've been associated with universities as student or faculty for almost 45 years, and I've never been at a school with intersession classes. Most of the colleges I've been at have been on quarter systems (or semester in a quarter, which is a bit more intense)—only the four years teaching at Cornell were on the semester system.

Many of our summer courses at UCSC compress the normal semester-in-a-quarter even further, doing a full semester's work in 6 weeks. I've not taught a summer course here (yet), but I understand it is quite successful for O. chem and for calculus. Our department will be doing an intensive tech writing course in the summer session this year—I hope that works, as the department can't afford enough school-year offerings (summer school is self-supporting, not coming out of the department budget).
For me it was a Maymester course (3 weeks long, you can guess when) on Spanish and Hispanic immigration. Week 1 looked at the history of Spanish colonization in North America, week 2 was a trip to St Augustine, FL, and week 3 looked at modern immigration trends.

The travel was key. I don't remember much about what I learned *on* the trip, but the tone set by the fact that we travelled helped me with the learning in weeks 1 and 3 (which was way outside my field of expertise...I was a music major).
Like GSwoP, I had never heard of an intercession until I read your blog. My experience was, like him, exclusively with quarter systems (three 11-week terms plus a fourth in the summer that was mostly grad classes) or a full or abbreviated semester system (two full 16-week terms or two 14- or 15-week terms and varying summer schedules). Does anyone do this west of the Mississippi? West of the Alleghenies? South of the Mason-Dixon line? I'm really curious if this started in private colleges in the northeast and was adopted by state schools.

I have had extremely positive results with 6-week classes in the summer, but students are taking two (or sometimes three) of these at a time so there is no exclusivity of focus that you attribute as the reason for improved success. I attribute it to regular class meetings (our compressed classes meet four or five days a week) with very little time to forget between classes. Students can forget that they even have a class between Thursday and Tuesday, let alone what they did "yesterday". Short terms are like continuous cramming, which results in acual learning.

BTW, when you measure "success" of a calculus class, is that looking only at the passing rate, or are you looking at the pass rate in the next calculus class? The latter is the true test of learning.
I do think that the origins of intersession classes are rooted in SLACs (we had "winter term" for four weeks in January) but if Dean Dad's community college is doing it, it appears to have grown.

Our winter term classes were outside the regular curriculum. You had to take three of them during the course of your four years, but they weren't regular courses; they were crazy things like learning how to weave or short-term study abroad or something so wildly interdisciplinary that it wouldn't even fit into a major or the gen ed program. And I was a music major, so all three of mine were performance-based, which is really ideal because of the singularity of focus. One year we worked up a full performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, with orchestra and choir, conducted by a student.
None of our winter session classes are on campus. There are a bunch of gen eds offered on-line and a few short-term study abroad courses.
I only ever took one intersession class, and it was an upper-level literature class only open to students fluent in the (non-English) language of the literature in focus.
We were expected to have read the novels in advance and one day of each day of the week-long course was spent discussing the respective novels through the course's specific lens (eco-criticism). Essays for grading were due much later, and IIRC the final grade was given at the same time as grades for the spring term courses that started after that intercession.

So really, the course took up much more time than the intersession period itself, but was limited to that time in terms of on-campus face time.
Long ago, as an undergrad, I took a three-week intersession course on reading film by David Bordwell (who literally wrote the book on the subject). Every morning was lecture-discussion, every afternoon was a film screening followed by a very short (half-hour) discussion. The course was a blast (highlight of the session: a dead bat falling out of the ceiling onto a couple of students during the screening of Psycho...), and I have not only retained the material but used it ever since in my own teaching.

I have also taught several intersession courses over the years that seem to have been successful. The key in all these cases, I think, is having a clear, relatively narrow focus, and careful design in terms of the learning objectives. Minimize the "content delivery" and emphasize "skill development." I think, actually, that a comp course could work well if it was well-organized, structured more like a collaborative workshop, and used a limited range of subject material. I have done similar courses in my fields (Asian Studies and Music), emphasizing skill development in analysis and presentation, with excellent results. In fact, in some respects, I had better results with three-week versions of those courses than with full-semester versions. That could be selection bias (more slackers signing up during the regular semester), class size difference, or the fact that we just didn't have time to fart around and lose sight of the course goals.

Anyway, I have had good experiences with intersession courses, and so have my students.
The Calibrated Peer Review (CPR) system can be used very effectively in an intersession English Composition class. Students would write drafts and then critique each other's drafts. Much of the learning takes place during the peer-review activities, and much of the burden of grading is lifted from the instructors.

The CPR library has a number of examples of English Composition assignments.
Best one I took? Viola da gamba, at Oberlin College. Mostly because it was so cool to get to learn a new and weird instrument, and because immersing yourself in it so completely was the very best way to learn it.

Best one I taught? International Environmental Law at Colby College -- for the same reason; it's an arcane language, understanding international law, and having a class full of students doing nothing but that for a month gave everyone focus (and also a shared struggle, that bonded them -- it was a full semester course in less than a month, so it required huge research effort).
Community College of Philadelphia, the place I attend these days, offers a couple online classes over the winter break, but they start around the same time finals week is finishing up and finish about a week before regular classes start back up for the January--April semester. As I am a STEM major & tech junkie, none of these classes offered over the break apply to me nor are that interesting (stuff like some of the humanities classes I already took at a previous institution). I personally wish the quarter system was more popular. I think it allows students to get more done in less time & can provide more flexibility in how one spends their year. Taking a term off wouldn't have so much impact as it does in the semester set-up. Also, it may cost less if tuition rises very year, as students can hypothetically finish over an entire calendar year earlier than they otherwise would. I wonder if a list of all institutions that use the quarter system or some other accelerated calendar exists. I know Peirce College where I attended before, in Philly, uses a 7-week accelerated schedule, cramming 6 of these sessions into each calendar year (running from September to the next August). Students get more time off during the breaks between sessions but can wind up getting more credits and finishing their degree faster than traditional schedules.
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