Pitzer’s Summer Session in the New York Times
July 27, 2008
President Laura Skandera Trombley, Professor of Economics Jim Lehman and Timothy Campos ’10 discussed Pitzer’s Summer Session in the July 27 edition of the New York Times in an article titled "The Endless School Year."
The Endless School Year
By Laura Pappano
SURE, it’s 97 degrees outside and nearly the same in Corcoran Hall at George Washington University. Prof. Martín Zysmilich did receive the unfortunate e-mail about the air-conditioning breakdown, but there is serious material to cover. Just eight minutes into a 90-minute lecture, Dr. Zysmilich, a lanky Argentine in brown Pumas who rides his bicycle to class, has filled the overhead screen in Room 106 with graphs showing the distribution of electrons in s, p and d orbitals. He pauses to ask students, some fanning themselves and sipping iced beverages (and one with a wet paper towel plastered on the front of her neck), “Can I erase this?”
Hearing no objections, Dr. Zysmilich clears the decks and dives into the electron properties of aluminum. After all, Chem 11 has to jam a semester’s worth of introductory chemistry into just six weeks.
What ever happened to summer?
Don’t look now, but it’s shrinking. Colleges are grabbing more of the May-August calendar for serious academics. During the summer months, some institutions now offer hundreds of the same courses they do during the academic year, taught by the same professors — only faster. At the University of Michigan, the College of Literature, Science and the Arts alone offers 418 courses during the summer, about 50 more than in 2001. By the time they graduate, more than half of all undergraduates will have done course work on campus in summer, and a quarter will have attended two or more summer sessions. In 2004, Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., stopped renting classrooms to youth groups and began offering regular courses. Pitzer’s president, Laura Skandera Trombley, says this lets the college use the campus in the way it was intended (no more squealing grade-school campers on the quad) and gives undergraduates what they want. “Students had been asking for flexibility with their schedules,” Dr. Trombley says.
As students pack more into their degrees (double majors, job-getting minors, internships and study abroad), summer helps maximize grade point averages and sanity. Do physics in summer, and the year is more manageable.
“I basically see it as, I am going to be working toward graduate school or getting a good job and I have limited time, so summer is another useful time in the year,” says Nick Wellcamp, a fourth-year student at the Georgia Institute of Technology who is double majoring in industrial systems engineering and public policy and has been continuously enrolled since August 2005.
Mr. Wellcamp says he misses his family back in Louisville, Ky., “a great deal” but wanted to take a course in technical communications to “get some of my core requirements out of the way.” While campus is more sparsely populated, “my friends are still around,” says Mr. Wellcamp, who is among 33 students living in the Delta Chi fraternity house this summer.
“There are plenty of things to do as long as you are proactive,” he adds, then ticks off his recent outings: meals out, two Atlanta Braves games and a rafting trip down the Chattahoochee River.
The idea that summer is no longer for dabblers and underperformers reflects a larger change in how students approach their studies: strategically.
“More students are just being full-time students 12 months a year,” says Martyn Gunn, dean of undergraduate programs and associate provost for academic services at Texas A&M. “Personally, I’m sort of against it.”
While Dr. Gunn wishes students would pause to reflect and try new things, he says more use summer to get work done. Indeed, a questionnaire filled out by 373 students at two Northeastern universities, to be published in the September issue of the journal Summer Academe, ranks the top reasons for summer attendance: to take a required course (No. 1) or one that couldn’t be fitted in during the regular year (No. 6); to beef up grades (No. 3); to graduate on time, even if switching majors (No. 4); to lighten the load during the year (No. 11); and, far down the list, to make up a failed class (No. 26).
IN Dr. Zysmilich’s Chem 11 class, Rebecca Soto, a sophomore from Tarrytown, N.Y., says her academic year is so packed that taking chemistry this summer was a no-brainer. “If you want to finish in four years and you are pre-med, summer school is imperative,” says Ms. Soto, who splits the cost of an off-campus apartment with two other students (her share: $367 a month). Ms. Soto’s parents pay her tuition ($971 a credit hour), but she works 25 hours a week at the International Spy Museum in Washington to cover living expenses.
Her classmate Caitlin Turner, a junior transferring to G.W. and changing her major from public relations to pre-med, is taking chemistry to get on track. Ms. Turner, who is living at home in Arlington, Va., commutes into Washington for class.
Students are quick to enumerate the pros and cons of summer courses. Ms. Turner, who is new to college science, finds the pace dangerously speedy. “It’s difficult to keep up, and I don’t realize I am confused until it’s too late,” she says.
Ms. Soto, on the other hand, likes the concentrated format: chemistry meets for 90 minutes four times a week, plus another five hours of lab work and discussion. The frequency of meetings makes learning easy, she says, because it’s “set up a lot like high school.”
Summer classes are smaller and more intimate (the No. 2 reason to go to summer school among the surveyed students). Dr. Zysmilich knows the names of all 14 students in Chem 11, which during the academic year can have 150 students. Some say professors seem more engaged.
Jim Lehman, who is teaching an international trade and development policy course at Pitzer, says students come to class better prepared because they focus study time on one or two subjects instead of four or five. And while he doesn’t ease up on his grading standards, he does set a more relaxed tone, dressing in shorts, Polos and Tevas. Also, he says, “people might bring things to munch on in class.”
Timothy Campos, a Pitzer junior, is taking watercolor and Chicano/Chicana literature this summer. “Art takes a lot of time outside the classroom,” he explains.
Mr. Campos is typical of students who think strategically. As a double major in sociology and Chicano studies with a minor in studio art, Mr. Campos, also Latino Student Union president and a community organizer for day laborers, says summer classwork will help him avoid a senior year in which he is under pressure to create. “I didn’t want all the art to pile up on me,” he says.
Mr. Campos has a year-round job in the admissions office that in summer comes with a free dorm room (which he has to open for campus tours) and helps pay for the added expense of summer school: financial aid covers only 75 percent of tuition for high-need students at Pitzer. During the school year, about 85 percent of all of Mr. Campos’s expenses are covered.
Summer students here are concentrated in Atherton Hall, the coveted “green” freshman dorm. That meant Mr. Campos, a self-described “artistic dresser,” had to move the contents of his room from Mead Hall, about 50 feet away, including his collection of hats, shoes and objects reflecting his fascination with skulls.
THE push to pack more into college may reflect the worries of a generation raised amid global competition. In majors with demanding requirements, like engineering, it has long been common for students to take more than four years to complete their degrees. On top of that, double majoring — or having a strong (and often unrelated) minor — is increasingly popular.
Anderson Smith, senior vice provost for academic affairs at Georgia Tech, wants students to pair tough technical majors with unrelated minors. “They might want to major in mechanical engineering and minor in music technology,” says Dr. Smith, who says being “broadly trained” can distinguish an engineering graduate from his or her counterparts in other countries.
Expanding summer offerings (and recasting teaching schedules) to accommodate the spillover, says Dr. Smith, is “part of the discussion.”
The notion that summer is a crucial piece of an academic program is a new idea to colleges, says Thomas F. Kowalik, director of continuing education and outreach at Binghamton University and co-author, with Donna M. Fish, of the Summer Academe study. He says colleges have traditionally looked at summer as an afterthought, mostly a way to market to outsiders. But according to the North American Association of Summer Sessions, 87 percent of summer enrollees are an institution’s regular students.
Increasingly, Dr. Kowalik says, colleges are recognizing summer sessions (often structured as two six- or eight-week terms) as found treasure, just as they are squeezing short courses into winter break and adding brief Maymesters between graduation and summer session. On some Web sites, summer has lost the camplike graphics and become just another tab along with fall and spring on the academic schedule page, evidence of the move to integrate summer academics more fully.
Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, predicts summer will one day be as busy as fall or spring. “It just doesn’t make sense to have academic facilities shut down for the months of June, July and August,” he says. In addition to providing revenue, he adds, summer helps colleges manage oversubscribed courses.
State Representative David E. Poisson, Democrat of Virginia, has filed a bill to study moving the state’s public colleges to a year-round schedule to add seating capacity. He says that by 2010 some 40,000 Virginia high school graduates hoping to attend one of the state’s public four-year colleges will otherwise be shut out. One way to increase access, he says, “is to look at the calendar.”
Five years ago, George Washington considered requiring juniors to attend the summer session, but Donald R. Lehman, the executive vice president for academic affairs, says the idea “ignited a fire” among faculty and parents wedded to family vacations — and died.
Could economic and scheduling pressures make George Washington revisit the year-round calendar debate?
“I think we will, and I don’t think we will be the only university,” Dr. Lehman says.
For students like Ms. Soto, of course, the academic calendar is already year-round; in addition to Chem 11, she is taking a sign language course. “I’d rather be hanging out with my friends,” she acknowledges during a 15-minute break at the spy museum, where she helps confused visitors navigate the exhibits, “but in the long run I know it will help me.”
Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.
New York Times, Education Life, July 27, 2008