Figuring the Ten-Week Term

Assistant Professor of History Paul Musselwhite

Assistant Professor of History Paul Musselwhite

Editor’s note: Professor Paul Musselwhite is one of our favorite faculty members at The Review, and is the College’s expert on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English Colonialism in America. Professor Musselwhite provides a unique breadth of experience when it comes to the College’s ten-week term. He first studied at Oxford under the eight-week term used there, took his graduate studies at William and Mary under a semester system, and then finally has taught at Dartmouth under our ten-week term. The professor spoke with The Review on the merits and demerits of the College’s term system from a professorial and academic perspective.

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): 72.1 percent of colleges nation-wide use a semester system while only 14.7 percent use a quarter system. The gap between the two is growing as more schools switch to a semester program? Why do you think this is? And to your knowledge, how does this trend fall into the historical styles of learning (seventeenth- and eighteenth-century colleges) you’ve studied?

Paul Musselwhite (PM): I would guess that the shift may be related to administrative efficiencies; two semesters means fewer enrollment periods, less transitional time on the campus etc. It probably makes billing and registration more straightforward. I also think that there are many places where the faculty prefer the semester and so there may be faculty pressure behind this (or at least a lack of resistance).

TDR: At Dartmouth and Oxford, how do you think the shorter terms impact decisions for the professors when designing a class curriculum?

PM: I can only speak for history obviously, but I think the key issue is that in a shorter term you cannot hope to cover the range of material you would in a semester and so you generally sacrifice breadth for depth. This can either take the form of shorter chronological ranges for classes or a more episodic/case study approach to a class.

TDR: From a history professor’s perspective, what are the advantages/disadvantages to learning about a variety of places/time periods in a deeper sense (opportunity to take more distinct classes), using a shorter period of time, as opposed to learning about one location/period but in a broader sense over a longer period of time?

PM: That really comes down to a philosophical question about what you think the purpose of historical education is. If you are looking for a sense of the development of a particular region or field (history of science, etc.) in order to apply this to other fields/venues later in your life/career then the overview could perhaps be seen as better – this is the rationale behind the “survey” class so popular in high schools. However, if you are looking to develop skills like critical reading, analysis, etc., then the detailed case study gives you more raw material to dig into. I think ideally you want a mix of classes in order to do both, but obviously that is difficult when the institution can really only have one academic calendar.

TDR: How is the testing/essay/exam structure different from quarters to semesters?

PM: I think most faculty members adapt their testing/assignment structure to the goals of the course rather than the length of the term. The term system does make it tougher to assign research papers in more introductory classes, but plenty of faculty members do it anyway.

TDR: What is the best way for students to make use of the shorter term? Or what mentality do you suggest students (specifically history students) take when learning under this system?

PM: Shorter terms are all about intensity. You have to be fully committed from the first week. This is a problem with the “shopping” period being a full week (one-ninth of the entire course), just like it would be in a semester system. I appreciate that students want to sample classes, but I always advise students to have made decisions by the Wednesday.

TDR: In your experience, what class structure works best to teach history in a quarter system? Shorter classes more times per week, or longer classes fewer times per week?

PM: Again, this really depends on what you are seeking to achieve with the class. If you are focused on introducing lots of content and covering material in class lectures then the shorter sessions are best, because no one can concentrate on lectures longer than an hour. However, if your objective is to absorb lots of reading material and then synthesize it in class discussions then longer classes are better because they give more opportunity to dig into a topic and consider it from multiple angles.

TDR: Concordia University says, “In the depth over breadth argument, the longer exposure allowed in a semester calendar allows for better quality of instruction. Rather than learn just the facts, students have more time to learn theories and generalizations. Students need time to absorb new concepts, and forcing them to learn quicker proves inadequate in education.” How would you respond to this claim?

PM: I think it is extremely difficult to make generalizations. I am sure that some types of material are more suited to absorption over long periods of time, but I certainly wouldn’t agree that more intensive teaching means just learning “facts.” In reality, the crucial issue is how many classes students are taking and how much attention they can give to the material. If you have reading spread out over fourteen weeks and you go for a week or ten days between genuinely engaging with a particular course’s materials because you are taking four or five classes, then I doubt you are ruminating on theories and generalizations. Three classes that meet for nearly two hours twice a week and have lots of reading every week are going to help you focus your energies.

TDR: How does the quarter system contribute to or mitigate the “wear and tear”, or turn around time on faculty?

PM: The system allows faculty to bunch their teaching into two terms and allocate a third term for residence and advising, but not teaching. This means that it actually gives faculty more flexibility for research. Teaching is intensive for us too, but it is bunched into shorter bursts and then we can switch gears and go back to our research or travel to archives, conferences, etc.