For this professor, the academic year has fallen out of sync with
the seasons’ rhythms.
When I was in college, the academic year began just before the
autumnal equinox and classes broke off just before the winter solstice,
thus making it logical to call the period fall semester, or at least
the first 11 weeks of it. After Christmas recess—during which
students expected to do but seldom did a lot of catch-up work—there
came another three weeks of classes followed by semester exams,
which sometimes went into the first week of February.
After just two or three days of “intersemester holidays,”
spring semester classes began—in the middle of winter—and
ran through late May. The 16-week period was broken up by a week
and a half of Easter recess and holidays that included Washington’s
Birthday, St. Patrick’s Day and Memorial Day, leaving the
requisite 14 weeks of instruction. Final exams began around the
first of June, just before the summer solstice.
after the last exam, first-year engineering students went to surveying
camp for two weeks. While we were away measuring in the mountains,
commencement took place on campus in mid-June. Thus did the school
year formally end, leaving a full three months of properly named
summer vacation, which most engineering students spent at temporary
jobs, often employing what they had learned about using steel tapes,
rods, levels and transits.
This semester-based academic calendar, which was so common a half
century ago, is adhered to by only a few schools today, most notably
some of those in the tradition-conscious Ivy League. Many colleges
and universities now begin fall classes a week or so before Labor
Day—in the full heat of summer—and schedule semester
exams to end just before Christmas. This allows spring semester
to begin in early January—in the throes of winter—and
end in mid-April, barely a month after the vernal equinox.
Among reasons given for switching to the earlier calendar was the
need—or at least the expectation—to do school work over
the holidays, thus intruding on family time. Another reason was
that not finishing spring-semester exams until mid-June put students
at a disadvantage when seeking a summer job.
Since I reckon years by the academic calendar, I have come to refer
to late August as the beginning of fall and early January as that
of spring. This translation of the seasons can cause confusion when
setting up meetings with those in the real world, where the transit
of the sun is not so easily rearranged by the mere redefinition
of the term “semester.”
According to my collegiate dictionary, the word semester derives
from the Latin for a six-month period. Its first definition is given
as “either of the [usually] 18-week periods of instruction
into which an academic year is often divided.” While some
foreign universities may still conform to this definition, no American
institution that I know of does—and some have pared the period
of instruction down to 13 weeks.
For decades I have learned and taught according to the 14-week
semester clock, just as I have lectured (mostly) according to the
50-minute class period. These temporal measures have become as natural
a part of my academic body clock as have the circadian rhythms of
Of course, some institutions divide the academic year into trimesters
or quarters, but I have never lived by such calendars and so do
not relate to them naturally. I expect, however, that there are
those who find them as natural as I do the semester calendar, and
perhaps a little less disorienting with regard to the seasons of
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil
Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. He is
the author of “Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design”
and other books on engineering and design.