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?