Most college students use the first half of January to hit the slopes or loaf around the house in sweatpants, blissfully unburdened by academia. But for about 900 UVA students, both on Grounds and abroad, the weeks leading up to spring semester are for intellectual experimentation. This is UVA’s ninth year offering January Term, a warp speed two-week period for students to focus on one three-credit course that lets them step outside the comfort zones of their majors and dig into new curriculum.
The classes meet every day for four to five hours, and J-Term students are expected to spend their evenings poring through long reading assignments and individual projects.
This year, classes range from anthropology and education to engineering and studio art. One class looks at America’s obsession with the apocalypse, while across Grounds another uses rubber bands and tennis balls to think critically about geometry.
Professors and students alike describe the classes as intense and often times brutal. Summer and Special Academic Programs Director Rachel Nottingham Miller said every course is carefully considered before being added to the J-Term offering list.
“We look for topics that can be tackled in two weeks, but rigorous enough to be considered for academic credit,” she said.
Faculty submit class ideas during the spring, Miller said, and a committee determines which ones are realistic and suitable for the compact J-Term format.
“Obviously we’re not going to have a survey of American Literature class,” Miller said.
Political science professor Paul Freedman is teaching Politics of Food, a class that looks at the production and consumption of food in a political context on a global, national, and local scale. This is Freedman’s fifth year conducting a J-Term course, and he said he loves the unconventional two-week format.
“The J-Term really lends itself to experimental approaches and new sorts of classes,” Freedman said. “You’ve got the intensity of the daily contact not for an hour or two, but for four to five hours every single day.”
His syllabus includes up to 200 pages of reading at night, in-depth class discussions for participation credit, guest speakers from the Food and Drug Administration, and a field trip to Polyface Farm.
“It’s really hard to do; it’s relentless, and you don’t get a break,” Freedman said. “If you miss one out of the nine classes it’s very hard to get back on your feet. And you’re pretty much toast if you miss two.”
For some, J-Term classes are a fun and exciting diversion from 250-person lecture halls, but for others they’re much more practical. Senior government major Caitlin Harrison said she chose to take Freedman’s January course to lighten the credit hour load during her final semester at UVA.
The class has already confirmed her ideas of how she should grocery shop and eat, and she said she definitely would have signed up had it been offered at another time. Harrison has taken classes with Freedman before, but she said this is a whole different ballgame.
“It’s definitely intense,” she said. “We’re going through a serious semester of work in nine days.” See what people are saying.