Academic years

Back in 1978, I sat my final undergraduate examinations in Trinity College Dublin. In those days TCD had its exams in September, thus ruining everyone’s summer, and the last paper I tackled was on a Saturday towards the end of the month. Matters were not helped by the fact that, on the following Monday two days later, I was due to start as a PhD student in the University of Cambridge.

But if that was crazy, maybe we should ask whether the whole concept of an ‘academic year’ is now out of date. We enrol students for a September starting date, mostly, and round about this time of year they sit their exams. At least that’s how it is in this part of the world. Occasionally now we do make available entry routes that bring students in at other times, particularly just after the New Year. And for some postgraduate degree programmes it is even more flexible.

However, the concept of a shared journey through the course, experienced by students in groups, has value. If students came and went around the year as if they were using a train, it would become impossible to run a curriculum or maintain a group setting. In addition, it can be argued that modular structures require similar dates across subjects and disciplines, because without that you could not maintain an interdisciplinary menu.

So are we still stuck with the ‘academic year’, or is there scope for some creativity? This may become an increasingly important question, as students become less willing to set aside fixed years in their lives devoted exclusively to study. However, as long as we continue to see learning as consisting of a series of fixed segments that need to be experienced strictly in sequence, it will not be easy. Still, maybe that is what learning requires. Or then again, maybe we do not ask enough questions about pedagogy in a changing world.

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7 Comments on “Academic years”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    *So are we still stuck with the ‘academic year’, or is there scope for some creativity? …However, as long as we continue to see learning as consisting of a series of fixed segments that need to be experienced strictly in sequence, it will not be easy. Still, maybe that is what learning requires. Or then again, maybe we do not ask enough questions about pedagogy in a changing world.*

    There is so much packed in these questions and their contradictory nature reflects perfectly the transitional aspect of our age, a time when new possibilities become available and yet we are reluctant to let the old, established ways of doing things go…this is particularly complicated when the ‘established ways’ bring back personal, youthful memories (it is no accident that this post starts off in a similar tone) I might add a memory of my own linked to the start of the school year (traditionally on October 1st in Italy, before in the 80s it changed to different September dates according to each region’s choice) October 1st will always be a special date in my mind for it coincided with the start of a new exciting school year, a momentous event in any child’s life..the fact that it was a fixed, unmovable date increased its importance. One needs certainties when growing up, it’s all part of the ‘bildung’ process, that philosophically rich concept whose translation as ‘formation’ or ‘development’ is far from satisfactory.

    So time, or better the’ timing of learning’ is crucial, it is an inherent part of our development as human beings and getting it right has an impact on how successful the process of learning is going to be.
    So how are we going to approach this pedagogical challenge at a ‘time’ when the same experience of time has so dramatically changed?

    The association of speed, modernization and modernity has a long history since McLuhan spoke of ‘technological acceleration’ in the 60s, in more recent times another cultural theorist Paul Virilio has described our societies as ‘race societies’ based on dromocratic power (dromos from the Greek word for race) the aesthetic, political, ethical and pedagogical implications of this are highly significant, for speed is not merely a matter of overcoming distance, it has to do with the perception of the visual world, with how we measure value and how people are disciplined within the political economic order, ultimately speed is about desire and power. Where exactly ‘learning time’ is going to fit in an age when, according to Virilio, technology has conquered time and chronological local time has been superseded by universal world-time? What will be the cartographies of learning, responsibility, and compassion in this digitally mediated landscape? What will happen to learning, to inquiry, to critical intellectual debate? Will it continue to be subserved by the university?

    Issues relating to changing perception of time (and space, for that matter) cannot be disjointed from pedagogical considerations, without advocating some sterile technological determinism learning strategies must adapt and respond to such changes. As McLuhan foresaw, the expanding ubiquity of digital media is reshaping the very fabric of society. What matters are not the (so-often fetishized) technologies, digital and social media, patterns of communication, and effects of information on society. What matters are the ways we respond.

  2. Vince Says:

    Does it not depend what you are using as the unit. If the lecture or group of five lectures is the unit then it matter little when during the year they are delivered so long as you get then in at some point before conferring. But if you are calling the degree the unit then the progression matters since you are being tracked up a road as it were. As to the start date; that it follows the liturgical year or any other hardly matters.

  3. James Fryar Says:

    I think it ultimately depends on the course. In my own field of physics, the learning structure is naturally hierarchical – there’s no point in teaching students Relativity if they don’t understand Newton! These hierarchies place definite constraints on when you teach what subject. So the basic format of these particular courses I don’t see changing. Modules can not be ‘self-contained’ in all situations.

    If the issue is when the ‘academic year’ starts or when exams are held, I think the current system makes absolute sense. We live in a world in which most students will work during the summer and/or travel abroad. The fact that we have a defined period over which this can happen helps employers, helps people issuing visas, etc. Plus, it ensures that academics are all free to attend conferences at about the same time.

    If it ain’t broke, why fix it? And if it is broke, where’s the proof?

  4. Al Says:

    There is a historical element of it being an idle apprenticeship for the ruling classes!
    Or is that too harsh?
    Or harsh enough to be true!

  5. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    And so we could become more flexible in the belief that this what students as consumers want. But do they want a fragmented and disjointed experience and would we be able to afford such flexibility? For example, University systems, structures and processes would have to adapt, and may end up doing much more for similar rewards.
    When would we take our holidays, do research, write courses and think if we spend the entire year ‘being busy’? The Oxford to Heathrw bus service runs every half an hour but more often than not the buses are empty or nearly empty. Do we want to ape this model?

  6. cormac Says:

    A lot of commentators are shocked that our teaching semesters are only 12 weeks long in the IoT sector. The truth is, every lecturer I know finds this enormously constraining, both for students and staff. What law dictates semesters have to be so short? For staff with a heavy teaching load, there is simply no time for anything else, resulting in missed meetings, missed funding deadlines, missed everything. For students, the term is so compressed there is almost no time at all to reflect on what they learnt..

  7. Jarlath Ronayne Says:

    In MY day at Trinity College (1961-65) Trinity College held its Moderatorship examinations in June, thus allowing for a holiday before going to Cambridge. The JF, SFand JS examinations were held in September giving plenty of time for revision, and plenty of time for enjoyment during term-time!

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