Faculty vote moves semester model forward
Illinois Professor of the Year speaks out against semester proposal
Augustana faculty members voted last Thursday to look deeper into the potential benefits of a semester system that would consist of 60-minute classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 90-minute classes on Tuesday and Thursday.
The vote was welcomed by administrators who have long supported the shift toward semesters.
"Everything is focused around improving student learning," dean and chief academic officer Pareena Lawrence said. Although she later acknowledged that "there is no direct study that learning is better under the semesters or trimesters," she did maintain that going to semesters would save the college money, better align athletic schedules with other colleges and give student scholars more opportunities to attend national conferences that often fall during trimester finals.
"When you look at it holistically, there are many benefits to it, but we understand any type of change is not easy, and when you are used to doing things a certain way you kind of like it and it becomes special, but we are looking at it in terms of big picture," she said.
Moments before Thursday's vote, history professor Lendol Calder stood up and told the roughly 130 people in attendance in Olin Auditorium that he didn't support the measure because he felt the proposed semester model was misguided and not in the best interest of either students or faculty.
When questioned by his colleagues as to why he opposed the semester plan, Calder, the 2010 Illinois Professor of the Year, intimated that he didn't have the time to expound on his reasons because time, he suggested, was a luxury he simply didn't have this trimester, which is his heavy three-course term. When asked by the Augustana Observer why he, one the more decorated faculty members at Augustana, opposed the semester model, he reiterated the same message.
"Teaching three courses at a time sucks the air out of one's professional and personal life, making it hard to engage in activities like, for example, meeting with reporters," he said in an email. "When teaching three courses, professors can't do research in their fields and they find themselves pulling back from the life of the community."
The proposed semester model reduces faculty load from seven courses a year to six, but professors will have to teach three courses for at least 15 weeks, possibly 30, compared to the 10 weeks in one term that they do now, Calder said.
"In a three-course term, I can't meet with every student who wants to meet," he said in the email. "And I provide less feedback on student work. I hate cutting corners like this, but under the new plan, I'll be forced to do more of it. There are only so many hours in the day."
Lawrence said she understands that many on campus are not in favor of switching to semesters. "Change is hard, and we understand that," she said. "Not every faculty member is excited about this. It's because they have to change their course work. Students aren't going to be excited about it, but what we are looking at is from multiple perspectives."
Under the proposed four-one-four model, students will be taking four courses in the fall and spring semesters and one intensive course in January, called the J term.
Daniel Scannura, a senior computer science major and music minor from Springfield, Ill., said he feels that the winter term under the trimester model is too fractured with holidays, and students find it difficult to adjust their schedules to learn. "Being in a music ensemble is hard because you go from playing music for five weeks to not playing for three weeks," he said. "It's not the most efficient way to learn."
Kristen Simmons, a junior communication studies major and art minor from Naperville, Ill., is one of several students supporting trimesters. She feels it offers students more opportunities to have additional majors and minors.
"It's one of the main reasons I came to Augustana," she said.
Other students said they feel that transitioning to a new semester system, particularly during a national recession, could cause turmoil for students and faculty and ultimately decrease enrollment.
"It's a risky transition," Grace Neigel, a junior communication studies major from Wheaton, Ill., said. She feels a large majority of the student body was attracted to Augustana College because of the unique trimester schedule. "It's easier for students who are working and making money because of the breaks," she said.
Randall Lightfoot, a junior geology major, said he feels that terms move rather quickly, and that he would like the opportunity to slow down, but questions if this change is the right way to do that.
"To be honest, our college shouldn't be thinking about this at this time. There are greater issues to worry about," Lightfoot said. "It seems like a waste of resources."
Another concern raised by students, including Lightfoot, is the implications the proposal would have on study abroad programs. However, Allen Bertsche, director of international and off-campus programs, said he was confident that a switch to the semester system would strengthen the Augustana study abroad programs.
"The four-one-four calendar with a J term would allow Augustana to offer both semester and J term programs, with more emphasis on J term programs to accommodate for students and faculty leaving their families," Bertsche said.
Another concern with semesters is that the change could deter prospective students from distinguishing Augustana from other colleges and universities.
"The trimester system at Augustana provides music education majors the opportunity to graduate in four years, whereas most semester schools require a five year program," junior Devon White said.
Professors remain skeptical of whether a semester system could accommodate some of the staples of Augustana College.
Darrin Good, a professor of biology and an Augustana graduate, said he was concerned that the science programs would become too large under a semester system and would lose some of their individualized instruction, which, coupled with the opportunity for students to take a greater variety of classes in the same span of time as a semester calendar, has been one of the most alluring factors Augustana has historically offered.
"The most affected departments would be that of physics and chemistry in their feeder programs, because we want to be able to offer the basics while still offering a robust set of classes for their major programs as well," Good said. "Science classes are already larger in class size and an increase in size becomes more unpleasant."
Many proponents of the shift to trimesters have referred to the change as a way to lessen the workloads for faculty and students, but that's not the case according to geography professor Norm Moline.
He said he's been arguing the fact that the initial discussion regarding a load reduction had a goal of eliminating high stress teaching loads for faculty.
"It seems to me, juggling four different things simultaneously is not as good as juggling three. The fact is that this course load reduction first came to the table because some teachers who had three courses with trimesters thought it was very high, and I sympathize with them, but the goal was to get rid of that," Moline said.
Lawrence agreed with the idea that there is no difference in the number of hours faculty will be teaching, but said she still supports the semester model.
"People think this is reducing faculty work load. It is just realigning it. They will be spending just as much time with you in the classroom, not more. It's just that they wouldn't be teaching seven courses. They'll be teaching six courses, but each course will be longer," she said. The savings to the college would be great, she said, underscoring a $500,000-to-$1 million-a-year figure that the administration has posited to the faculty during the past several months.
"Registering three times a year takes a lot of work. Billing three times a year is a lot of time and effort. If we go to a semester model, everything's twice a year," she said.
Calder, who last Friday sent a lengthy email to all faculty that detailed his objections to a semester model, said he could be persuaded to embrace the proposed system if faculty members who were working on scholarly projects - articles and books -- were given course releases to complete them.
"It costs $4,200 to hire an adjunct to replace me for one course. Twenty such releases would cost $84,000 a year. It was said earlier this fall that the conversion to semesters would save the college between half a million and a million dollars. I don't know if that was an accurate estimate," he said. "I do know that if the figure that impressed so many is anywhere near accurate, then 20 course releases should be an easy thing to finance. Or is it the case that support for this kind of faculty development is now considered the one of lowest of priorities for an authentic Augustana?"