Thursday, July 27, 2006

Agrarian Calendars

According to IHE, Florida is considering moving some public colleges and universities to 12 month schedules, to increase capacity without building. My free advice, having worked in a 12 month academic environment for six years, is to be very careful what you wish for.

The impulse behind the idea makes a certain sense. Although faculty don’t like to admit it, the original idea behind the summer vacation wasn’t to give faculty time off to do research; it was to give students time off to help with the crops. Summer ‘vacation’ wasn’t a vacation as we know it; it was a shift of focus from inside work to outside work.

Over time, of course, we’ve moved away from an agrarian economy and culture, and most full-time jobs run twelve months. Academia has held on to the agrarian calendar, and a whole set of expectations has developed around it. For college faculty, summer is time to renew, but also to research. (For K-12 faculty, the ‘research’ component is much less relevant.) For students in the lower grades, summer is playtime. (In the tonier suburbs, playtime has become hyperscheduled and competitive. Leisure, ironically enough, is seen as the prerogative of the lower classes. This is without precedent, historically.) For students in the higher grades or in college, summer is time to earn small amounts of money doing scut jobs, possibly garnering unpaid internships to get a foot in the door of a chosen field.

Colleges have used summers to turn their attention to various fundraising activities. Although the popular imagination seems to think that college buildings gather cobwebs from May to September, most colleges have become quite resourceful about renting out facilities to community organizations, conferences, adult/continuing ed, and other profitmaking ventures to subsidize their core operations. For a college to go to a 12-month calendar would mean giving up those cash cows, forcing it to make its core operations self-sufficient.

For some idea of what that means, I can gloss the conditions at my former employer. Full-time faculty workloads were 45 credits per calendar year, divided evenly into three four-month semesters. (Interestingly, the adjunct percentage was no higher than at most lower-tier four year colleges.) There were no athletics, dramatic productions, dorms, or cultural events for the community. Tenure didn’t exist, and faculty were evaluated on criteria including, among other things, student drop/fail rates. The Admissions staff was large and well-compensated.

It wasn’t all bad, certainly. High turnover brought with it an openness to new ideas, and anybody with the energy to try things above and beyond the soul-crushing workload pretty much could. A clear institutional mission meant surprisingly minimal internal politics, since there were evident criteria for what fit and what didn’t.

All of that granted, though, the operational issues alone were staggering. Federal and state financial aid are both premised on the agrarian calendar, so a college (or system) that breaks from the agrarian calendar puts many students in a difficult position.

Even if the financial aid system were adjusted, which could and should happen, a college that went to a 12-month calendar would have to make some tough decisions about sports, staffing, and student life. Assuming three four-month semesters per year, would faculty teach two out of three, so they’d be staggered, with one-third away at any given moment? If so, faculty governance is pretty much dead in the water, since decisions are made by those who show up. (You’d also have to maintain a lot of dead office space at any given time, eating into the supposed efficiency savings.) Alternately, would faculty teach 12 months per year? If so, research expectations would have to be adjusted dramatically downward, as would courseloads for any given semester. Faculty attrition would skyrocket, which brings issues of its own.

Collegiate athletic leagues are based on the agrarian calendar, so a college that went to a 12 month calendar would quickly find itself badly out of sync with its leagues. Students wouldn’t be able to do summer internships without falling out of sequence with their cohorts. (This brings course-scheduling nightmares you would not believe.)

It’s also a fact of life that people take vacations. At my current college, faculty don’t get discretionary ‘vacation days,’ since they have the entire summer, a week in the Fall, a month at Christmas, and a week in the Spring without classes. Take those breaks away, and professionals will want vacations. If classes are always running, then the only time to take vacations will be when classes are running. This gets very ugly very quickly, since finding competent subs for upper-level college courses isn’t just a matter of finding a warm body. (“Differential Equations? No problem! X=2, right?”) In most professions, self-scheduled vacation isn’t as much of an issue, since people can cover for each other. In college-level teaching, that’s not a serious solution.

Speaking of facts of life, it was a frustrating-but-consistent fact at Proprietary U that the summer semester had lower enrollments than the others. We could talk about a 12-month calendar until we were blue in the face; students had a cultural expectation of a summer break, and plenty of them took it. Anyone who thinks that going from 2 semesters to 3 will bring about a 50 percent increase in productivity is simply delusional. (It’s analogous to solving a classroom crunch by running more 4 p.m. classes. It works on paper, but good luck getting students to sign up. Student preferences are much less manipulable than you might think.)

That’s not even addressing the impact on communities of losing access to the kinds of programs that colleges run during the summer, or of losing the cultural extras that colleges can provide when they have the cushion in the budget that cash-cow programs can provide.

My skepticism towards the 12 month calendar isn’t based on a misplaced nostalgia for agriculture – as my regular readers know, I’ll take central air in suburbia over sweating in the fields anytime, thank you very much – nor is it based on self-interest, since I already work a 12 month calendar anyway. (It’s one of the curses of administration.) It’s based on a sense that the people pushing it haven’t thought it through. When I hear complaints about academics getting summers off, they’re usually couched in a sort of populist resentment, rather than any kind of careful examination of the facts. It just isn’t that simple. It rarely is.