Middlebury College students enjoy J-term’s change of pace

MIDDLEBURY — For students at many colleges, January is typically a time to relax between fall term finals and the new semester. It is a month of home-cooked meals, showers without flip-flops, and nights spent on a comfortable mattress.
Middlebury College students, however, face a slightly different four weeks. From Jan. 6 to 31, students are enrolled in only one course that is chosen from a selection of offerings that differ from the usual academic fare.
“Principles in Practice: Movement and Philosophies of Yoga,” “Impact Investing for a Sustainable Planet,” and “Writing Poems This Month, For a Lifetime” are three of the many courses available to Middlebury College students during this winter term. Other options for January include the possibility to complete an internship, work on independent work or study abroad, and students may also lead student-taught classes.
Students can also take ski or snowboarding lessons at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl in exchange for a P.E. credit. This can be a promising deal when debating between running laps in a gym or letting your body rush steadily down a snowy slope.
“I can go skiing every day if I want and still be able to get everything done for class and extracurriculars,” said Middlebury sophomore Kate Robinson.
Just starting her second “J-term,” as the winter term is often called, early this week Robinson was looking forward to a course called “Journeys to the Edge: Mountain Exploration and Adventure,” taught by the dean of Atwater Commons, Scott Barnicle. In it she will study the history of mountain exploration by means of literature, films, narrative and presentations.
Like everyone admitted to this elite college, Robinson is a serious student. But J-term allows her to learn in a way and at a pace that is somewhat different than the rest of the year.
“I have quite a bit of free time, but that’s kind of the whole point of J-term,” she said.
Middlebury’s one-month Winter Term program started back in the 1960s. And students take a minimum of two and a maximum of four J-term courses as a graduation requirement. Most of the classes are capped at 22 students. The team-taught courses are capped at 38 and some of the writing-intensive courses are capped at 12.
Students who are taking a language during the regular academic year are required to continue with that language during J-term.
“It’s an important aspect of learning a language, so you don’t spend too much time away from it,” said Bob Cluss, dean of curriculum and director of the sciences.
Not only are these courses a little different than ones offered during the rest of the year, the faces at the front of the classroom (when there is a classroom) can be different. Classes are often taught by visiting winter-term instructors. Cluss said the visitor-taught courses are often “quite popular” among the students.
These instructors come to Middlebury with a slew of talents and achievements tucked away in their back pocket. For example, Tammy E. Newmark, who is teaching “Impact Investing for a Sustainable Planet,” is the president and CEO of EcoEnterprises Fund, a fund for sustainable endeavors in developing markets. Middlebury College also has authors, documentary creators, performance artists and museum curators — to name only a few — teaching this month. The college works to bring in new ideas and diversity to the classroom and their efforts stretch far beyond as a result.
Another visiting professor is Daniel Houghton, who is teaching a cinematography course this term. A 2006 Middlebury graduate himself, he likes that a J-term class allows him and the students to engage in hands-on activities and lets the students really dig into the subject.
Houghton said he thinks that once people have grown up, they kind of forget how to play. His course aims to reteach students the mindset of playing, in a way, and make the idea of handling new equipment less scary.
Gary Margolis taught in the English department and was the executive director and a psychologist in the Center for Counseling and Human Relations at Middlebury College for 38 years. Although he has recently retired, he is still teaching the “Writing Poems This Month, For a Lifetime” winter-term course simply because he really enjoys connecting with students. Margolis started writing when he was 16.
“I think it was a way to express things of meaning, curiosity and necessity in my life,” he said.
His preferred style of writing is contained within poetry, and for the students entering the course, his advice is that they should create a trusting atmosphere in which they feel comfortable sharing ideas and their own pieces and also “to allow themselves to be surprised,” he said. Even though this course is listed as a lecture in the catalog, Margolis said his students will do a lot of reading and writing.
He hopes students will gain a curiosity and enthusiasm for engaging their creative processes and that they will have a deeper understanding of contemporary poems. He also wants the students to know how a poem comes to be. The class itself will be very interactive and will rely on how engaged the students are and how willing they are to speak up.
FORMER MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE counselor Gary Margolis is teaching a poetry class during the college’s winter term.
Independent file photo/Trent Campbell
The phenomenon of a January term is not limited to Middlebury College. According to the College Xpress website, 109 U.S. colleges offer a J-term. When deciding to put a winter term into the school year, the pros much outweigh the cons. The goals of most are to prepare students for real-world jobs or for graduate school by giving them a broader range of experiences. While giving students an intense study experience, a J-term class also provides a chance for them to determine if they like what they are majoring in, or it gives them a gateway to other interests they might not have known they had.
Cornwall resident Peter Lindholm, who graduated from Middlebury Union High School last June, will begin his Middlebury College career in February so he is not taking part in the tradition of J-term this year. But Middlebury’s winter term and the diversity of the classes is one thing that drew him to the school. He is looking forward to participating in it his sophomore year.
“It really helps you learn a lot about a subject in a short time, because of the intense study,” he said when asked about what he has heard about the program.
Robinson, also an MUHS grad, is excited to experience winter term again.
“I grew up following my mom around and a lot of her classes are taught over J-term so I’ve been in love with the idea since middle school,” she said. 

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