January 28, 2013

A. Fall Break Proposal from the University Academic Calendar Committee (D 10139-10147).

Professor Diane Bailey (committee chair, information) summarized the key elements of her committee’s proposal that had been presented at the December Council meeting. The proposal recommends that a fall break be added to the academic calendar to occur on the Monday and Tuesday of the ninth week of the fall semester. To maintain seventy days of instruction during the fall term, the semester would begin the fourth Monday of August, which would be two days earlier to make up for the two-day break. She reminded Council members that the purpose of the proposed change was to provide an opportunity for students, graduate students, lab instructors, and faculty to have a break in the middle of the semester to recoup. She added that committee members thought this would be of particular benefit for freshmen students as they are adjusting to new workloads, pace, and life in the new academic environment. She pointed out that the proposed break was not intended to remedy the problem of students missing classes on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which she said was really more of a problem for faculty than for students.

Professor Bailey recalled that most of the comments at the previous meeting had related to laboratory courses. While the proposed break maintains twelve whole weeks of instruction, one of those weeks is the first week of classes, which was deemed problematic by some instructors. She reminded Faculty Council members that the committee’s research had shown that a number of other top schools, such as Yale University, Brown University, the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley, and Ohio State University, have only eleven whole weeks in their fall semester, while Harvard University has only ten.

Professor Linda Reichl (physics) expressed her concern about having teaching assistants start their work even earlier in August, when they are not officially appointed until September 1, the start of the new academic year. She asked if that caused a potential liability issue. She warned that new teaching assistants would be put in front of classes without being adequately screened. She was concerned that, in addition to losing a week of lab instruction, there would be an additional burden for the University and staff. Professor Bailey responded that, if instructors lose a week of lab time, then teaching assistants (TAs) would not have to start earlier, but if TAs must start earlier, then instructors would not lose a week of lab time. Professor Bailey acknowledged that, if the proposal were approved, some logistics would have to be addressed. She said her committee’s charge was merely to research if the obstacles would be insurmountable.

Professor Patricia Roberts-Miller (rhetoric and writing, English) noted that she was initially very much in favor of a fall break, but she was swayed in the other direction when she heard about the issue with labs. She noted that she was a graduate of Berkeley, where lab courses were only offered in the spring semester, which had a negative affect on students’ time-to-degree. Professor Bailey responded that she had three degrees from Berkeley, and that she did, in fact, have fall labs in her engineering program.

Next, Mr. Michael Redding (Graduate Student Assembly representative) spoke in favor of a fall break. He noted that the assembly had given the TA issue particular thought. Since appointments run September 1 through January 15, January 16 through May 31, and June 1 through August 31, TAs are always appointed outside their actual dates of employment. While he would appreciate if this issue could be remedied, he declared that TAs did not see it to be relevant in this discussion. Professor Bailey reiterated that both the Graduate Student Assembly and the Student Government voted on the fall break proposal twice, once when it was first introduced, and then again, after many of the objections were known.

When Professor Hart said she believed the Senate of College Councils had not voted on the fall break proposal, President of the Senate of College Councils Michael confirmed that a vote did not occur. Chair Elect Hart said the lack of a vote was not to be interpreted as negative given that the item had not come before the Senate of College Councils.

Vice President of the Senate of College Councils Andrew Clark said there was much discussion of the fall break proposal even though a vote was not held. He indicated that some engineering students and TAs reported that their labs did not meet twelve weeks, some even met only eleven weeks, or as few as eight or nine weeks during a given semester. He reported that Counseling and Mental Health Services had 786 requests for crisis services during the 2011-12 academic year, compared to 496 in 2007-08; in addition, appointments with the center increased from 7,399 to 9,883 from fall 2010 to fall 2012. Mr. Clark said he personally endorsed a mental health break in the fall semester for students.

Professor Michael Domjan (psychology) reminded the audience that at the previous meeting there had been strong opposition from members of the College of Natural Sciences who were not present at the current meeting. He regretted that there was no evidence from the highest levels in the Colleges of Engineering and Natural Sciences that the issues were reviewed and worked out. He also commented that students might be less in need of a mental break if they would not let their academic work pile up by participating in events such as Austin City Limits or OU weekend.

Professor Bailey expressed her regret that she was unable to engage anybody in the Colleges of Natural Sciences and Engineering in a discussion about the nature of their needs for a certain number of labs. In fact, she noted that there is much controversy in scientific journals, drawing on Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, about the purpose of labs. She said there were questions as to whether labs were simply embodiments of Dooley’s pragmatism in that we learn through doing. She further stated that the academic calendar was merely a social construct that had resulted from ongoing discourse and it was neither a law of nature nor a requirement instituted with the conception of the University in 1883.

Professor Jon Olson (petroleum and geosystems engineering; also a member of the University Academic Calendar Committee) expressed his surprise that none of the faculty members from other colleges who previously spoke in favor of the proposal seemed to come forward at this meeting. Professor Bailey reiterated that the general feedback to the committee’s initial inquiries was largely positive, with the lab issue as the main stumbling block.

Professor Jody Jensen (kinesiology and health education) spoke out strongly in favor of a fall break citing pedagogical reasons despite the lack of hard data; she thought it might provide an opportunity for curricula to be reconsidered in terms of how information could be delivered. She anticipated benefits for freshmen, a reduced workload for mental health clinics, and an improved dialog between faculty and students to discuss different structures, due dates, additional in-depth reading, project deadlines, etc.

Professor David Stein (molecular cell and developmental biology) disagreed with the notion that the pedagogical value of labs was being questioned. While he found the number of students seeking mental health professionals interesting, he did not consider it reliable data and felt that more in-depth research should be conducted at universities before and after implementing a fall break.

Professor Leslie Dean-Jones (classics) supported the fall break because of her own experience when comparing fall and spring semesters. She said she found herself to be much more in control after the break in the spring semester than at the end of the fall semester, which currently has no break.

At this point, Chair Hilley and Professor Bailey pointed out again that the proposal was classified as major legislation, and even if the Faculty Council members voted in favor of the proposal at the meeting, it would also have to be approved by the voting faculty of the University.

Professor Sonia Seeman (music and Middle Eastern studies) also spoke in favor of a fall break. She said she felt that students could use a break to develop deeper thinking. Furthermore, she noted that some courses in the humanities also have labs, including her own world music class, and that being a week short for labs merely challenged her to implement new learning exercises that she wanted her students to have.

Professor Susan Klein (law) thought that the burden of proof in favor of a fall break was on the side of the proposing entity and needed to be supported by some real data with sufficient evidence. She further thought that the fall semester should have some class days added to bring it closer in length to the spring semester. Professor Bailey countered that her committee would certainly not be able to perform a study, or even a controlled study, of students before and after the implementation of a break. She also questioned if all proposals coming before the Faculty Council had to have full studies supporting them.

Professor Catherine Boone (government) suggested, that rather than shutting down the University for two days, maybe some other means could be considered by individual instructors, such as taking a break, not holding class one day, and not penalizing students for taking a break, or holding a different kind of class, such as a stock-taking class where students could reflect on what they’ve learned so far. Professor Bailey solicited Chair Hilley’s assistance in finding an entity that would investigate that option. She noted that if the proposal were not approved, her committee would likely not take on that charge.

Professor Leslie Vaaler (mathematics) recalled her objection from the last meeting that moving the fall semester forward would leave a shorter break between the summer session and the fall semester, and she was wondering if the committee had considered another shift to move the summer session as well. Professor Bailey told the Council members that the calendar committee had considered many different options, including the possibility of completely revamping the academic calendar by starting the spring semester earlier and shifting the whole calendar forward. Such changes would open a variety of possibilities for breaks at different times and would open the opportunity to bring the fall semester closer to the spring semester’s length. The committee, however, did not think that such a major overhaul would be well received and tried to find a solution with the least amount of overall disruption. She said the committee came up with the current proposal after seeing more and more of the perceived obstacles fall away.

Professor Klein suggested merely adding the two days of instruction to the fall semester without creating a break. She discounted Professor Bailey’s objection that students might not like that idea, claiming that some students might be pleased, such as those who want to get into medical school or finish their degrees in four years.

Professor Reichl expressed her confusion about moving the start of the semester forward by two days and was concerned about whether labs could actually be held during the first week. She asked why there was a need to start two days earlier in the fall if a week of labs had to be cut. Professor Bailey reiterated that the fall semester needed to maintain seventy days of instruction to follow the principles that guide the academic calendar. Professor Reichl asked if Vice President of Legal Affairs Patricia Ohlendorf could comment on the liability issue of having TAs work before their actually appointed time.

At this point, Chair Elect Hart called the question, and Professor Bailey thanked everyone for their time and attention. Chair Hilley called for a vote by show of hands. The fall break proposal passed with 29 votes in favor, 23 against, and three abstentions.

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