Volume XXXVI, Issue 2, November 1, 2013
Picture the scene: You’re a sophomore at Amherst, and it’s about half-way through Interterm. You’ve just come back from your pass/fail partial credit course, BLST-112: The Political Theology of Bob Marley (or, perhaps, ARHA-127: The Art of Glassblowing, or maybe even PSYC-314: Beyond Hooking Up: Creating Meaningful Relationships), taught by a professor whose pet passion is just that. Traipsing through the pure white snow, you make it into your dorm and find a bunch of your friends gathered around the common room fireplace. You propose that today you should finally snowshoe up The Notch together.
After your collective workout/journey/bonding experience, you return to campus and settle yourselves down for a nice long Val sit. You’ve just gotten your hot chocolate and marshmallows mix right, possibly spiked with a little Bailey’s for good measure, when you hear that Amherst has organized a stargazing outing through the astronomy department. You make your way to Memorial Hill, and all of the nearby lights have been shut off. You sit down (comfortable in your snow pants) next to someone you’ve always wanted to meet but somehow missed so far, as you listen to Professor Greenstein talk about the constellations. You lie down and look up in awe. The stars are so…well there’re just so many of them. Wow. How easy it is to forget the beauty of Amherst while you’re bogged down with classes, clubs, sports, and whatever else it is that you do. Gotta love Interterm.
That’s what I imagined, four years ago, when I toured Amherst as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed pre-frosh. It was a vision that fit hand-in-glove with what my tour guide said: he described a three to four week period during January when students came back to campus, took interesting classes (from professors and students alike), and generally “hung out”. He said it was “pretty cool, apparently.” I didn’t pick up on the “apparently”—but I should have. I should have asked why he hadn’t ever come back to campus for Interterm, or whether Amherst’s program was similar to that of Williams, or Wesleyan, or Middlebury. But I didn’t. I assumed, given the brief description he gave, that all of these modern, elite LAC’s had come to a similar conclusion: that three or four weeks of on-campus low-stress bonding is exactly what college students need, and exactly what builds up communities. Little did I know that Interterm at Amherst is, at best, an underused resource, and at worst, dead.
At least that was my impression. The past three years I’ve not once been inclined to return to Amherst early. Every time I came back from break and heard reports of Interterm, it sounded like little more than a few of my lonely friends getting drunk together because they had nothing else to do. Three years of Interterms and not once had I heard a story start with “Man, you gotta hear about this one time over Interterm!” or end with “I learned that in my Interterm course.” I’d never heard of a day like the one I asked you to picture. I had heard about a limited selection of classes that counted for nothing and were often cancelled, a barren campus that was known more for being frigid than fun, and total lack of any real “winter community” to speak of. I’d heard they even cancelled the popular winter musical, permanently. But I realized, as I began to write this article, that my perspective was both biased and uninformed. I decided to find out if I was right to pre-judge Interterm this way, or if I was missing out. Maybe Interterm is great; maybe I’m just out of the loop. I needed to know the truth. I needed data.
So I conducted a credible and peer-reviewed study in Val over the course of two days. (By “credible,” I mean I’m a trustworthy person. By “peer-reviewed,” I mean I asked some of my friends if I was asking the right questions.) I surveyed every section of Val, during all hours of lunch and dinner. I asked subjects whether they’d been on campus during Interterm, whether they’d liked what they’d done, whether they had any good stories, and whether they’d learned something. I even asked freshmen what their pre-conceptions of Interterm were, and whether or not the whole thing sounded appealing. I talked to over 150 students, and I learned a lot.
When you ask Elias Baez ’15 what he did over Interterm, he tells it to you straight: “Absolutely nothing.” And he’s serious. Elias’ response was not unusual. I found that students who were not on campus for a particular, mandatory reason (i.e., they play a winter sport, or they want to join ACEMS) most often said they did very little. When I asked Route 9 member and close friend Will Longabaugh ’14 about Interterm, he simply said, “It was dumb.”
While many reported doing little, at least some people had fun while doing nothing. Tin Tin, an RC who requested an online pseudonym, said that his Interterm schedule consisted of “Alcohol, alcohol, alcohol, and snow.” A group at a rugby table agreed, saying it was a great time to party with a select few people and get to know them. Alvaro Morales ’14 had similar thoughts. “We find ways to make every day fun,” Alva explained. He spoke fondly of willpower competitions: longest you can go tied to someone, longest you can go without eating utensils, longest you can go wearing sunglasses…
What I was hearing was that Interterm was kind of like “Camp Amherst”, a term tossed around when Amherst students get to hang out on campus without the stress of work. When I asked a table of sophomores and juniors if Interterm was anything like Camp Amherst, tour guide and campus personality Christian Aviles ’14 responded: “Yup. Yup, that’s what it is. It’s Camp Amherst.” Everyone without obligations seemed to agree. Interterm was like Camp Amherst, with one exception: No one was there.
Here’s the thing: For each student that said he or she had been on campus for Interterm, another two never had. That (informally surveyed) ratio is astounding when you consider I’m not just talking about any given Interterm for the latter group, but ever. I knew my reasons, but I tried to find out from others why they, too, had never chosen to participate. When I asked KJ Winchell, a junior living in Pond, she summed it up nicely: “There’s no reason to be here…wait does that sound bitchy?” To me it didn’t. She seemed to be saying exactly what I’d heard from most everyone else. Sure, a few people said they wanted to see their families because they lived far away, and others spoke of short-term internships and jobs and long-distance significant others. But most students I talked to just hadn’t considered Interterm at all. It didn’t appeal.
For some students, it didn’t matter whether Interterm sounded fun or not; they were coming anyway. The winter sports teams, for example, all meet up over Interterm, running a rigorous practice schedule. A group from the women’s basketball team told me that they spent almost their entire day practicing. Maybe they watched a movie or two in the evening, but that was all the spare time and energy they had. They mentioned that a few of their teammates took an accounting class, but it was certainly not the norm. ACEMS provided another example. If you want to zip around in the future-car and save lives and deal with vomit, you have to take the EMT course over the break. Noah Lerner ’16, an EMT course graduate, was one of the few students I spoke to who was genuinely excited about his Interterm experience. “It’s like Christmas for Jews,” he told me, elfishly grinning. He then elaborated: “It was an intense bonding experience. It was the only time I was running around with a football player, and a crew team member. Plus, blizzards.”
Most of us won’t ever participate in Noah’s fun though. When I asked freshmen what they thought about Interterm, almost all of them either did not know what it was or had no interest in it. Sydney Watts ’17 thought she knew what I was talking about though: “It’s just winter athletes; everyone else goes home,” she informed me. She was one of the few first-years that had an opinion at all. Kim Greenberg, a first-year from South, asked me “Does it cost money?” And even well-informed senior Will Savino stated, “I don’t even know how you’d go about taking a class. I want to, but I have no idea how.” If Interterm is as fun as Noah says it is, most of the school is missing out.
So Amherst students don’t know what Interterm is, or have no interest in it. And with a limited selection of classes, few organized events, and only a small portion of the school present, Amherst isn’t offering much. But maybe the college is doing its best. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect a super fun and cool three weeks between the fall and spring semesters.
Except other colleges seem up to the task. Middlebury has a Winter Term to which all faculty are expected to contribute. Students integrate their classes with other classes, do project work, and are required to be at Middlebury for two Winter Terms during their four years. Wesleyan has a similar program. They call it the ‘Winter Session’, and they provide the option to take one full intensive course so that they can take three classes instead of four in a future semester. Colby has the Jan-Plan, where you can take up to three hours of course credit with classes like “Pills, Potions, and Poisons” and “Tolkien’s Sources”. First hand reports indicate that the Jan-Plan creates the exact kind of winter study experience I feel our campus deserves.
And I’m sorry to report that of all the great between-semester programs, Williams’ takes the cake. All Williams students are required to do something with their three additional weeks off—whether it’s reading War and Peace, traveling to Israel, or doing an internship in town. The three classes I listed in my ideal Interterm day are all taken directly from the Williams’ Winter Study course book—there’s more than one hundred to choose from. According to Williams students I’ve talked to, the required participation creates an ideal atmosphere: tons of students doing just the right amount of work and having a lot of fun.
Of course we’re our own college, and we should do our own thing. But if I learned anything, it’s that we shouldn’t keep doing this thing. Interterm can be so much better! We deserve so much more, for all of us! So I have a proposal, loosely borrowed from Dartmouth’s popular and successful Sophomore Summer program. I call it ‘The Sophomore Snow’.
The Sophomore Snow: If you’re a sophomore or in your second year at Amherst, you would be required to stay on campus during interterm to take two half-credit pass/fail classes. Half of each department would be asked to host classes, particularly research-based classes, open to all students, with preference given to sophomores.
It’s a simple fix. Bring the sophomore class to Amherst, and the campus will come alive. We spent the entire “Day of Dialogue” trying to come up with ways to build our community. Here’s one easy, practical, and worthwhile way to do it. With all of your class on campus, you’ll bond with your peers like never before. Think of what you’d do if you didn’t have to focus on academics, and everyone was around! The Sophomore Snow can become a tradition that all Amherst students share, getting through the harsh New England winter while taking oddball classes, learning practical skills, getting to know old and new friends better, and enjoying the outdoors. The parties will be better, the socializing stronger, and the campus, well, not dead. Other students will be attracted to come back as well, though not so many as to make the campus crowded. We’d finally have a tradition we could be proud of, a selection of classes and experiences to enjoy collectively, and, who knows, maybe even the musical would come back. And while I think ‘The Sophomore Snow’ would be a big success, other ideas could work as well. The point is to make Interterm cool and fun again—for everyone.
The one group I didn’t mention of Interterm-goers are the thesis writers. I’ll be among those this upcoming break. And while most of them are holed up in C-level or labs or who knows where, working their brains until they’re fried, I’ll be sitting in my room, looking out the window, imagining how much better campus could be. I’ll be daydreaming of ‘The Sophomore Snow’ I never had but others could, and I hope you will too.
Because I really, really want this to happen. But, dear Amherst, I have no idea how to make it so. I’m doing the one thing I do know how to do, which is writing about it in The Indicator. I’m hoping that maybe, just maybe, the next time Interterm comes up, you’ll talk about how much better it could be. Maybe you’ll mention the Sophomore Snow idea, maybe you’ll talk about Williams’ Winter Session, or maybe you’ll just be inspired to teach your own class on Bob Marley. But please can we just try to make Interterm good?