The trials of Spring quarter

I have not been attending to this blog as much as I would like lately, but I am confident I know why: the start of Spring term.

The Oregon University System is on quarters, and Spring, for me and, I gather, many of my colleagues, is the toughest.

There are a number of reasons for this, but I think that the most important is the fast turnaround from Winter. Yes, we have a break, but unlike between Spring and Fall where you have, essentially, three months off in between classes, or between Fall and Winter, where you have, typically, three to four weeks, the transition between Winter and Spring is only a week. Even if you can snag time at the end of Winter to begin prepping for Spring, it is still a challenge to find time both for a breather and getting ready for a new round of classes. I suspect that many faculty at my institution choose to either be ready for the start of the term or to take time off and turn the beginning of the term into a scramble to get set up.

In any case, Spring always ends up feeling like a grind. I know that right now, for example, I am reading two books as I teach that I would have finished and annotated in advance for either of the other two quarters.

At the same time, while I likely would support a move to semesters in OUS, there are aspects of the quarters system that I like. Having three terms with an option for a fourth to deliver courses every year makes it easy for a small department such as ours to carry a respectable major. If we had to reduce the number of courses we could offer each year, we would have to make some tough decisions about what to leave aside, and that’s in a context where I think we already have notable gaps. Our cartography offerings, for example, are the barest of bones.

And while it means more preps each year, I do like the variety of courses I get to teach. As an undergrad at Lewis & Clark College, that was also something I enjoyed about being on quarters (LC is now on semesters).

The quarters system at LC had a few quirks to it that I am sure helped to make it easier to manage than the one we have in OUS right now. Fall term started early in September, which set the beginning of Winter break at Thanksgiving, a luxury that still affects me when having to head back to classes the Monday after that holiday. The standard class was five credits, which meant that students rarely took more than three at a time, and, in retrospect, I am sure helped to keep teaching loads reasonable.

What I don’t remember is if there was one or two weeks at Spring break. But I often think that having a two-week Spring break would solve most of the problems I have with that term right now.

In the bigger picture, though, there are other compelling reasons for moving OUS to semesters. Most of the academic world in the U.S. is ordered around the semester, from standardized texts to conference schedules. One of the added stresses this particular Spring is my having chosen to go to the Association of American Geographers meeting in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. While people from semester schools also had to leave classes behind, they did not do so in the third week of a ten week term. I had to schedule my trip to be back for a film class I teach one day a week. When missing a class means missing a whole week, and I only have ten to begin with, I find it impossible to bring myself to cancel, regardless of just about any circumstance (this problem was compounded by a delayed train in Seattle which put me back on campus just thirty minutes before my class, when I had planned on having two to three hours; slim margins, which is my whole point).

These kinds of problems are why I try to avoid travel while classes are in session. There’s no question that a semester offers more “flex” for professional activity outside of teaching than does a quarter. Not to mention for semi-professional activities like maintaining a blog such as this one.

I still hope to get to some of the topics I’ve wanted to write about the last few weeks, including a reflection on the AAG, but I’m not sure what I’ll be able to get to before the time to discuss has passed.