Editorial: Preserve Spirit of Winter Term
One of the ways that Oberlin stands above its peer institutions is through the amount of trust given to students to shape their own Oberlin experience. The College trusts its students to enforce rules within the dorms, care for priceless works of art and, most importantly, tailor their academic journey to fit their own personal goals and needs. With limited course requirements for graduation, ample opportunity for independent study or private readings and the option to design one’s own major, Oberlin demonstrates its confidence in students to put together a challenging, personally fulfilling course load.
Few aspects of Oberlin embody this idea better than Winter Term. As evidenced by the Winter Term Committee’s recent presentation to the General Faculty, however, Oberlin’s trust is not unconditional. This Committee feels that its trust has been violated by students pursuing projects that are not “relevant, rigorous, experiential and educationally rewarding,” to use its words. To encourage students to tackle more challenging types of projects, the Committee voted to eliminate the categories “academic,” “field experience” and “personal growth.” They hope that by eliminating these categories, there will be a higher standard for pursuing projects with greater seriousness of purpose, now that the “personal growth” option can no longer be used as an excuse to do the bare minimum.
The committee’s frustration with students throwing together lackadaisical, half-hearted projects is understandable, but denying students that wish to attempt a serious project outside the realm of field work or academia is unfair. We hope that under the new policy a student who wishes to, say, explore a foreign country or learn a new instrument would not be refused that opportunity. It would be unfortunate if eliminating Winter Term’s categories resulted in punishing all for the negligence of a few. This strays far from the understanding and trust Oberlin claims to offer its students.
Furthermore, no project is approved for credit without the signature of a faculty member. The professor who agrees to sponsor a project on road trips, for instance, is just as culpable as the student who proposes it. Because the Committee recognizes this responsibility, it wisely encourages professors to use more discretion in which projects they sponsor.
Students as well must demonstrate the responsibility that comes with Oberlin’s generous academic freedom. Oberlin is supposed to be a place for intellectual risk-takers who are inherently curious and find learning intrinsically rewarding. The idea of Obies celebrating the chance to spend January lounging on a couch offends the basic idea of Winter Term, not to mention Oberlin sensibilities of excellence.
Students crestfallen about this change should also take heart in the fact that it usually only takes a little bit of creativity to turn a “personal growth” project into something more academically-focused. A student once watched and reviewed every film on the American Film Institute’s top-100 list. While a project like this may have involved a good deal of couch-sitting, it was also a worthwhile learning experience; she received Winter Term credit for this project under the “academic” category.
As initially arresting as the changes to Winter Term may seem, it is encouraging to see the College demonstrate a willingness to examine and improve institutions relevant to students. And the essence of Winter Term — a time of out-of-the-classroom exploration — will continue, regardless of how we categorize the experience.