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Tuesday, Aug 9, 2022

The annual creation of an unconventional J-Term catalog

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">BENJY RENTON</a></span><br />Davis Family Library after the first snow of the winter as students began to review the Winter Term course offerings, unique classes that undergo a complicated approval process.
Davis Family Library after the first snow of the winter as students began to review the Winter Term course offerings, unique classes that undergo a complicated approval process.

“J-Term, play term,” Middlebury students joke. Taking one course for the entire month of January offers students plenty of time for fun alongside unique academic opportunities, but the planning that takes place behind the scenes is not so simple. Deciding which courses to offer, as well as who gets to teach them, is a process that requires extensive vetting and interdepartmental approval.

Beginning in April, the Curriculum Committee, composed of four elected faculty members, the dean of curriculum and a representative from the registrar’s office, reviews hundreds of course proposals from faculty members and visiting instructors wishing to teach a Winter Term class the following January. The committee tries “to balance offerings across the curriculum to provide a relatively equal distribution of courses offered across areas,” said Dean of Curriculum Suzanne Gurland.

“We want to bring in some variety relative to what is typically taught at Middlebury,” Gurland said. “Sometimes chairs or directors will make recommendations on what they have identified as a specific need for students that they could not necessarily fulfill in another one of their department’s own courses.” 

According to Gurland, there is no set number of courses that a faculty member must teach during Winter Term. “In terms of requirements, it can be fuzzy,” she said. “We say to chairs and directors that part of their responsibility is to distribute teaching equitably in their department and to fulfill the department’s responsibility to the college-wide curriculum.” Some professors may teach a Winter Term class every year, while others have not taught one in several years. 

With so many proposals and such limited space, not all course proposals can be accepted. “Every year we get a ton of great proposals from prospective visitors, and the hardest part is saying no to them,” Gurland said. “When it’s members of the regular faculty, the assumption going in is that we’re not going to say no to a faculty member.” 

While faculty members’ proposals are almost never explicitly denied, Gurland said the committee often requires that minor — or major — tweaks be made to a proposal before approval. “In some cases it’s three or four rounds of emails until we can come to a consensus on an agreeable, workable, course,” Gurland said. 

These adjustments are not always received enthusiastically. “Sometimes a professor will say that an edit has completely changed the meaning of their course,” Gurland said. 

Faculty can also apply to teach courses that fall outside of their departments, if their expertise spans multiple disciplines. In such instances, faculty must also receive approval from the department in which they want to teach. Gurland said it is more common for professors to apply to teach “interdepartmental” courses. 

Christal Brown, the chair of the college’s dance department, consistently teaches a course outside of her department. Brown worked with MiddCORE, an entrepreneurship-based leadership and innovation program, for four years before being asked to serve as the director of the program. 

But as low-stress as winter term tends to be, teaching high-intensity classes like MiddCORE during such a short time span can pose challenges for professors. 

“When you have four weeks, you have to be so clear about how you’re spending your time,” Brown said. “You have to cover three weeks of work, in a week, every week. That can either be super overwhelming, or integral to how you spend your time — which I think for a lot of people, if you haven’t taught outside the usual structure, is daunting.” 

For visiting instructors, the review process takes on a much different form. In addition to the course proposal, the visiting applicant must submit a curriculum vitae, resume, “or description of background and experiences relevant to the course you are proposing,” according to the Middlebury College website. 

Each year, the committee receives applications from prospective visitors from all different walks of life. “Some applicants are professionals out in the world, some are practitioners, some have never taught before, and some are academics,” Gurland said. Gurland said that some form of teaching experience is almost always a necessary prerequisite for course approval.

Jeanie Bartlett ‘15 and Katie Michels ‘14.5 are teaching a course this winter titled “Food, Farms, Future: Vermont,” which draws together their work in Vermont’s agricultural sector with many of the concepts highlighted during their Middlebury experience. 

“Whenever I’d make those connections between what I was learning through work and what I had learned at Middlebury, it just started to plant the seed for coming back to give a talk or maybe teach a J-term class,” Bartlett said. “So when I realized one of my best friends was also thinking of teaching a J-term class, I asked if she’d be willing to team up.”