Greg Alexander

Taking time out to expand horizons

Baltimore Sun, February 17, 2008

In today’s competitive job market, many college curriculums are being shaped with students’ career goals in mind, in that courses are being developed to respond to workplace needs, increasing students’ odds of landing a great job immediately following graduation. However, the benefits of encouraging students to expand their horizons by taking unorthodox classes and those with no relation to their major has not been lost on area schools. In fact, many schools have a specific academic term for such classes – the intersession.

Typically held immediately following the New Year before the spring semester begins and lasting three or four weeks, the intersession period allows students to gain a few extra credits toward graduation and take a noncredit class in an area that has always been of interest but is not a required class in their major, furthering their spectrum of knowledge, a key goal of the college experience.

“When I started here, I never expected that students would want to come back to campus from the holidays early to squeeze in another class or two,” says Jessica Madrigal, director of summer and intersession programs at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). “But with the long break in December, many students choose to go home for a couple of weeks and then come back to take a credit and a noncredit class during the intersession. The classes are pass/fail or noncredit, which is liberating for Hopkins students who concentrate so much on grades during the other terms. It’s more laid back in style.”

Since most students only take one class during the three-week period in January, “they can dig deeply into the course because it’s their only one,” says Gretchen McKay, associate dean of academic affairs, director of the honors program and associate professor of art history at McDaniel College, which requires that students take at least one intersession class during their four years at the school. “It’s wonderful because it makes students explore something outside of their major. Trying something completely different contributes to the college experience, and honors students take to it ‘like ducks to water.’ They relish the chance to switch gears,” says McKay, who notes that half of the students in her January term class are honors students.

“It’s a great opportunity to take a class that a normal course load would not allow, and the shorter term is a nice break. We can give a nursing student, for example, some space and allow him or her to try an art class,” adds Michelle Harris Bondima, Ph.D., dean of business, health, sciences and mathematics at Baltimore City Community College (BCCC). Bondima adds that not all courses are conducive to the shorter timeframe of an intersession. “We would never offer organic chemistry in this term, for example. As a dean, I consult with faculty and department chairpersons to see which classes will work in a three-week timeframe,” says Bondima, who notes that some students retake classes in the intersession term to improve upon a grade they received in the fall term. “We also have students from other colleges – Towson University and University of Maryland, for example – who will take a class here to pick up some extra credits. Our online oceanography course is popular for students to fulfill a science elective.” One of BCCC’s most unique offerings, Bondima says, is a required orientation course for freshmen called “Preparation for Academic Achievement.” “It teaches students how to learn how to study and taking it in the intersession is perfect timing so that they don’t have to take it in the spring with a host of other classes.”

Madrigal says that she utilizes course proposals from faculty and graduate students when outlining which classes will be offered. “We have different topics every year, and topics are typically dependent on what courses the graduate students want to teach,” she says. Madrigal adds that JHU divides its intersession courses into four categories: academic exploration, experiential learning, programs abroad and personal enrichment.

Academic exploration courses include such titles as “Warfare in the Ancient Greek World,” “Vaccine Development,” “Introduction to Flying: So You Want to be a Pilot,” as well as a program called “B-More,” a freshman-only program that focuses on different aspects of Baltimore, including housing, public health and immigration. For example, two of the anthropology courses in the program include “Rethinking Interventions in Baltimore: An Ethnographic Consideration of Everyday Life” and “Lives on the Wire: Anthropology, Inequity and Urban Life.”

“The personal enrichment classes are done through Student Development and Programming and are non-credit. Many are initiated by students,” says Madrigal. Class topics run the gamut from “Introduction to Playing the Appalachian Fiddle” to “Introduction to Foot Reflexology,” “Wine Appreciation” and “Investing for Newbies.” Madrigal adds that the experimental learning classes are more career-focused and involve a trip to New York City to meet influential individuals in finance and public relations through the “Public Relations and Media in the Big Apple” and “Economics: Seminar in Financial Literacy” courses. “The finance students meet JHU alumni who are working on Wall Street and tour stock market offices. It’s important to see what the job is really like and the results of a Johns Hopkins education.”

McKay says that the classes at McDaniel allow students and faculty to explore other interests. “I have interests outside of my career, so it’s great for me, too. I was a painter and art historian in college, and the first class I taught for the intersession term was ‘Modern Art in Theory and Practice,’ where students would study Picasso and Matisse one day and they go to the studio the next day and paint in those styles. I would never teach a true studio course, but the unique structure of this course works.” Some of McDaniel’s intersession classes include “Consensus Leadership Process,” a course focusing on the team environment prevalent in today’s workplace; “Hap Ki Do, a Korean Martial Art,” where students gain knowledge of Korean culture through self-defense; and “Religions and Criminal Justice,” which examines religion’s role in the justice system. However, McKay says that one of the most popular courses is the one she taught last month, “The French Revolution.”

“Two years ago, I heard about a new pedagogy called ‘Reacting to the Past,’ and in this course students take the role from 18th-century France that is either real or based on an actual person. It’s structured like a game where students argue their beliefs based on the charter they are portraying. Students read works by Russo and instead of a term paper, they write a newspaper based on 18th-century historical text and printing methods. This class is perfect for the intersession because they get so wrapped up in it, which wouldn’t work in a regular term as their other classes would suffer.”

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