Emerging from January Term Focused on Focus

Not long ago I wrote about my thoughts as I approached teaching our general astronomy course in January term for the first time. We don’t offer a lot of laboratory science courses in January term because the term is difficult enough – 4 credits of genuine college work in 18 class days – without adding the extra 6 hours of lab per week on top of the 15 hours a class is already meeting. Eleven adventurous students and I made it all the way through what at times seemed like a voyage in turbulent seas without landmarks and at other times felt like a relentless trudge through the desert, just putting one foot in front of the other, with an almost grim determination. We made it all the way from “Night Sky and Celestial Sphere” to “Big Bang Cosmology and the Future of the Universe.” I would have liked to have written something about the effort while we were at it, reflecting on what how we were doing. But, you know, relentless hike, grim determination, etc., etc.

As I suggested in that earlier post as we approached the start of this, oh let’s call it The Thing, it doesn’t seem likely that the students grasped as much depth or nuance as they might in a longer term. I am a big believer in the notion of “settle time” for ideas to take hold while you think you are doing something else. If there is one thing January term lacks, it is settle time. Still, when I am being honest with myself, I am forced to admit not that too many students in a general astronomy class fail to get the idea that it is the precise angular size of Venus in a particular phase that was such spectacular support for the Copernican/Keplerian model or where that observation might place Galileo in the loop model of science we are trying to build using Karl Popper’s philosophy. Never mind trying to come to terms with the critical difference between gas and radiation pressure having temperature dependence and electron degeneracy pressure lacking temperature dependence. Also, I give a conceptual inventor at the beginning and end of each term. The Light and Spectroscopy Concept Inventory is designed measure student understanding of various concepts related to light and spectroscopy.  Perhaps, given the name of the instrument, that explanation wasn’t required. With only 10 students who took the inventory both pre-course and post-course, there simply was no way there would be enough data for us to say anything meaningful about how student growth compared to that same growth during a full semester but there wasn’t really a hint that it was worse.

Despite the feeling that things likely didn’t stick as well, there was something to be said for the intensity of focus over those three and a half weeks. We were thinking about and talking about astronomy every day. On Tuesdays and Thursdays we were together for six hours, undertaking a variety of activities all related to better understanding how humans have tried to understand the universe. There’s no way that six hours of that in a day won’t feel a little like the slog I talked about a couple paragraphs ago but just as much it felt like sustained conversation, something we never really get to in the fractured semester, and that sustained conversation felt like education in a very pure and real form. That essence is, I suppose, what colleges that teach one course at a time are aiming for. While I couldn’t teach this particular course or ones like it too frequently in this format, I have decided I would do this again. It was physically and mentally draining but that reward of the feeling that we were all in it together, without much else stealing our time or focus, and doing something meaningful was powerful.

Having just emerged from this January term experience has made reflecting on the nature of January term unavoidable for me. As a faculty we have been reflecting on that nature for the entire 21 years I have been at Luther, just as we have been reflecting on who we are as an institution. Often, we frame the conversation around “the purpose” of these things. I am always leery of “the purpose” just as I am leery of “the problem with” conversations. As regular readers of my ramblings here (yeah, both of you) know, I tend to get down these rabbit holes of “re-inventing the wheel” and “work smarter, not harder.” Lately, a group of faculty have been thinking about the nature of January term as a time of focus and intensity. My recent experience resonates with that. It’s certainly a strength of January term. I am just not certain I would call it “the” purpose or “the” strength. Sometimes it feels like we push to far in our efforts to simplify or boil down our identity and purpose. Yeah, if we are all over the place we risk dissipating into a second law of thermodynamics haze, but if we narrow “the” purpose too much we risk losing the recognition that one time period, one experience, one institution can bring value to a multitude of people in a multitude of ways. As is often the case there might be a middle ground that is hard to find and hard to hold onto. For now, I am just glad I had this intense experience with these 11 fantastic students who were game, if tired, right to the end. For me, it touched on something important. I’m just not quite ready to call it “the” essential element of January term.