On Feb. 10, in a lecture room filled with students, a psychology professor droned into the second hour of class. The students’ eyes had already started to glaze over when the professor looked up.
“I’m going to be bad,” the professor said, reading a message off her computer screen. “I just heard. RIT is switching to semesters. It’s official.”
From that point on, the campus was abuzz with news and protest. First year students expressed anxieties of not being able to finish college in time; alumni wrote letters; “5 by 3” became vernacular.
A little over one month later, the campus has begun to settle down. The RIT community has divided itself into three distinct groups. Some are hopeful and curious. Others are in downright denial. Many are apathetic, reasoning, “Well, I’ll graduate before then, so it doesn’t matter.” Regardless, the decision has been made. Change will happen, and with it will come a turning point in RIT’s history — for students, for faculty members, and for the Institute as a whole.
“I think the big concern was not so much semesters versus quarters,” explained Amit Ray, associate professor in the RIT’s English department and chair of the President William Destler’s ad hoc Committee on Semester Planning. “The big concern was having a quarter calendar that made sense. And frankly, the one that we have didn’t make sense for a number of reasons.”
One major concern with the current quarter system was the mid-winter holiday break. Having a two-week vacation after three weeks of class has a negative effect on student information retention. Although professors do take measures to accommodate for this problem, the number of withdrawals, D’s and F’s is significantly higher during the winter term. “For example,” said Ray, “What I’ve done is that I teach a sort of mini-course, and then I teach the rest of the course afterwards because it’s so hard to connect back in.”
In the midst of last year’s winter quarter, a series of revised quarter calendars went through governance with no resolution. The current system was not liked in the governance groups, but the alternatives were not well received, either.
“After this had all gone through, and there wasn’t any clear voice at the Institute Council, Bill [President Destler] decided to just throw out there ‘how many of you would vote for a semester option if it was on the table?’ and the majority of hands went up,” said Ray. The administration came to realize that with so many factors in play: RIT’s students, faculty, RIT’s interaction with other universities; it didn’t make sense not to give semesters serious consideration.
According to Ray, only four other institutions currently have a quarter calendar set up like RIT’s, and they are all small schools without RIT’s national profile.
The change from quarters to semesters is going to bring RIT into unchartered territory. “It’s a huge process,” admitted Ray. “It will be tough. It will be laborious. It will require people at every level thinking.” While Destler and Provost Jeremy Haefner have presented several broad initiatives to aid in the transition to semesters, the details are not yet set in stone. The next six months will be spent gathering feedback from the RIT community and working out the implementation plan.
On Nov. 1, 2009, the Committee on Semester Planning submitted the “RIT Semester Conversion Report” (available through RIT’s website), drafting a plan for RIT’s possible move to a semester-based academic calendar. Most notably, the committee suggested the creation of at least eight new ad hoc committees to work with pre-existing committees and governance groups to ensure that the transition is as smooth as possible. These committees will have responsibilities ranging from determining the roles of advisors and how they will help students with schedules impacted by the changeover, to modifications that must be made to SIS, to communicating the process to students and staff so that everyone is aware of each step taken.
Current freshmen in five-year majors, and every subsequent student who enrolls at RIT after 2013, the target date for conversion completion, will be impacted by the change. For those students, Ray offers some reassurance: In addition to lots of advising, the plan is to set up one-time transitional classes that will bridge the gap if you are, say, in the middle of a class sequence or need to take classes in your final year under the new system. Still, if RIT’s quarters are all one is familiar with, it may be difficult to imagine life under the semester system.
Dane Britcher is a senior at St. John Fisher College, majoring in Management with a concentration in General Business Management. He is currently enrolled in six classes, which, at three credits each, total 18 credit hours. He also works anywhere from two to 10 hours per week at his school’s admission office. Some weekends, he even has the time to go home and work 10 to 30 hours.
Students are able to choose from three different types of schedules at St. John Fisher: Classes that meet three times per week at 50 minutes each, classes that meet twice per week at 80 minutes each, or classes that meet once per week at three hours each. St. John Fisher only requires 12 credits to be considered a full-time student but, according to Britcher, the average student takes about 15 credits.
Even with these options, it can still become hectic. Britcher’s busiest days might be reminiscent of a typical RIT day on quarters:
- 9:30 a.m. Advertising
- 10:50 a.m. Buyer Behavior
- 12:30-3:00 p.m. Library time (studying, assignments, etc.)
- 3:30 p.m. Strategic Management
- 4:50 p.m. Psychology
- 6:15 p.m. Professional Selling
- 9:30 p.m. Done for the day
In regard to workload, Britcher said that each semester, his professors provide an appropriate amount of material, if not more. In the 100-200 course level, the first week is often introductions, but this is not the case in higher-level courses.
“Three hundred level and above, any course will get right into the material the first day,” Britcher said. Even with this quick start to the semester, Britcher finds the workload manageable. However, he said that the semester can feel quite long, especially toward the end. He thinks that quarters may have an advantage in this particular area by being able
to break up the year more.
One aspect Britcher does enjoy with semesters at St. John Fisher is how his breaks match up with most other colleges. While he does have friends who attend RIT, he often finds it
difficult to meet up with them due to different break schedules.
However, Britcher did point out that his friends at RIT do seem happy with the quarter system
and voiced his concern with whether or not the switch to semesters
is being done for the benefit of
“If their [RIT] student body is hoping to stay with quarters, and they switch to semesters I think that kinda stinks,” Britcher said. “I hope they’re doing it for the students
and not just for other reasons.”
“It’s a necessary and it’s a good switch, even though it won’t effect me,” said Jake Maynard, a second year New Media Marketing student, planning on graduating in 2012. Most of the concerns that he’s heard focus on classes and scheduling. “They [my friends] are worried about the number of classes they’ll
have to take.”
With such a strong student response to the semester conversation, it’s easy to lose track of the other end of the classroom. And naturally, a new timeline lends itself to new ways of teaching.
Mary Lynn Broe has been RIT’s Caroline Werner Gannett Professor of Humanities since the position was created in 2006. The Caroline Werner Gannett Project brings a series of lecturers to RIT every year. Along with her dedication to the project, she regularly teaches the courses of “Auto/Biography” and “Maps, Spaces and Places.” Compared to the rest of her career as a college-level instructor, Broe is relatively new to the quarter system.
“For over 30 years, I only taught in semester systems, but at a range of different colleges and universities,” said Broe. Those universities include the likes of Notre Dame, SUNY Binghamton, and Grinnell College where she held the position of Louise Rosenfield Noun endowed chair from 1986 to 2002.
Though she admits to some skepticism within RIT’s faculty, which can vary from college to college, Broe welcomes the change.
“I see no problem and only gains,” Broe said.
She looks forward to using the extra classroom time to flesh out concepts and ideas, as well as add learning activities inside and outside of the RIT campus. To Broe, a ten-week term is limiting; courses examining writing across more than one century or even involved areas of psychology can only present a basic overview. In addition, the change would allow room to make use of the arts and cultural resources of Rochester community, bringing in experts for new areas of experience.
Broe is not unfamiliar with both sides of the argument. The quarter system can be beneficial in capturing students’ short attention spans and allowing them to explore other areas of study. However, a looser calendar will not only allow time for more in-class exploration and discussion, but also for personal development outside the classroom and more industry-standard co-op options. Though a quarter system allows time for a greater number of co-ops, most employees prefer more time than 10 weeks, forcing students to double-block co-op slots. However, one of the more overlooked points is the opportunity for cross-disciplinary ventures, which both Broe and Ray can agree is a key advantage.
“Transformative changes in technology, in science, in really any field of human endeavor ... are going to take place across disciplinary boundaries,” said Ray.
Ray worries that RIT is currently producing alumni who are very knowledgeable about what they learned, but lack the interdisciplinary skills that the modern world demands. He hopes that as professors examine their classes and curricula, changing them to fit a semester schedule, they will work together and use this change as a paradigm shift making RIT a model university for a rapidly changing era. RIT’s current students are what Ray describes as “digital natives,” (adding that he doesn’t particularly like the vagueness of that term), integrating technology into our lives from an early age, and RIT needs to capitalize on the insights that technology gives us.
Broe emphasized this importance of keeping an eye on the “big picture” in the classroom. The move to semesters will allow a fresh look at how subjects are taught at RIT, and it is important to keep in mind what new techniques — including what is taught, with whom, and where — that were not possible before.
“Some of the ‘trim-the-fat’ diehards may be forced to become more contemplative, more rangy in looking at other disciplines and their impact on the subject being taught,” said Broe.
So is RIT really on track to change to semesters in 2013?
“We will be,” said Ray, “If we’re going to commit to this, we will be committing to it fully, and it will be institute wide.” Plus, he said, President Destler wouldn’t have it any other way. Ray assures the RIT community that the process will not fall behind schedule. Meetings within different programs of study are already taking place.
Ray addressed certain misconceptions students have since the early days of the debate, including:
- The voice of the students was ignored.
- The co-op program will be changed for the worse.
- The expense of this changeover will cause tuition to increase.
- This will ruin RIT’s reputation of producing young professionals used to working in a fast paced, rigorous environment.
Addressing them in the order listed above, Ray said the following: Said Ray, “Based on the comments that I saw, it’s sad to say this, but students were woefully ignorant about the change.” This is why, Going forward, Ray hopes for much clearer communication between the deciding committees and the rest of RIT.
According to Ray, there used to be five schools with co-ops and a quarter system, and that three of them have already switched to semesters, laying the groundwork for RIT’s change. According to Ray, employers generally also prefer longer co-ops. While students will not be able to schedule as many co-ops as in the past, they will still get the same or better experience.
“Cost will not increase.”
As far as the pace of RIT’s classes, Ray stated, “I don’t think the culture changes based on the calendar.” RIT students expect to be challenged; even with major scheduling changes, cultural precedents are already in place and will not shift overnight. I think that, ultimately, the cultural precedent for students demanding of faculty a pace of work, that doesn’t ebb and flow, but continues.” And of course, RIT’s faster pace is not always beneficial, as it tends to rob courses of depth.
Students will take five, 3 credit courses per semester for a total of 15 credits. Some courses will vary number of credits, but the norm is 3.
This will be the second academic calendar switch for RIT and the second time the institute uses a semester system. The academic year of 1954-1955 marked the initial change to a quarter system. Before that RIT ran on semesters. Until 1976 the institute moved from early to late starting quarters until arriving at the current early start system in effect today.