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American Society for Engineering EducationSEPTEMBER 2007Volume 17 | Number 1 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
What Price Security? - By THOMAS K. GROSE
Team Player - ALVIN P. SANOFF
A Network of a Different Stripe - By DON BOROUGHS

Refractions: Confusing Calendars - By Henry Petroski

Click. Build. Learn. Digital K-12 engineering courses expand with stress on quality, fun. BY BARBARA MATHIAS-RIEGEL
JEE SELECTS: The ‘Random Madness’ of Work - BY JAMES TREVELYAN


REFRACTIONS: Confusing Calendars - BY HENRY PETROSKIHenry Petroski

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.

The transit of the sun is not so easily rearranged by the mere redefinition of the term “semester.”Immediately 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 life.

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 the year.

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.




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American Society for Engineering Education