Students are not in love with winter term. A recent (and admittedly unscientific) poll on The RECORD’s website revealed that 69 percent of respondents thought that the school should do away with the one month term where students study one subject intensively. Students complain that winter term starts too early, heaps way too much work on them and turns otherwise mediocre courses into month-long studies in tediousness. Some of them are right, but maybe the problem isn’t winter term itself but the way many, if not most, students choose to it.
Aside from the miserable January weather — which the Law School cannot control — winter term’s start on the day after New Year’s Day is difficult. Many students have scarcely recovered from New Year’s hangovers before they stumble off the plane and back into the classroom. And those hoping to spend the New Year with family far away — in other countries or even distant states — will have an even tougher time returning.
Of course, students do not necessarily have a right to extra hangover recovery time or frivolous vacation pursuits. But they do have the right to the best educational experience the Law School can provide. A winter term done right can be a highlight of a student’s career. The month offers intrepid students a chance to undertake uniquely focused projects such as clinicals in places such as Hong Kong, Haiti and Ghana. Others can use it as a chance to research 3L papers. Other classes, such as Trial Advocacy Workshop and Negotiation, are ideal choices for the winter term, and difficult to accommodate in a regular year schedule.
Unfortunately, most students do not spend their winter terms that way. More often, winter term means a super-intensive bout with Evidence, or worse, an unwanted third choice. Those students who end up in these classes, especially those who didn’t want to be there in the first place, are certainly apt to be a big source of complaints.
Currently, there are likely to be a lot of students in that group. If the law school is going to mandate that students earn credits in winter term — expecting that many of them want to or plan to be on campus — then it should offer more unique courses like TAW, Negotiation and other clinicals that might entice new students to take them. It should not, and professors should not, simply cram one-semester classes into an intense single month.
The solution for fixing winter term is not to get rid of it. In fact, abolishing winter term would hurt many of the Law School’s most creative and enterprising students. Instead, the faculty should ensure that there are more opportunities for students to really take advantage of the time they are given. Along with adding more good courses on campus, the Law School should offer more organized clinicals, as well as international opportunities. Letting students organize their own clinicals and research is good, but not enough students take advantage of it. It is the faculty’s job to offer opportunities like this, rather than expecting students to organize them on their own. Students don’t know what opportunities are out there, and the challenge of navigating HLS’s bureaucracy is enough to scare off even the most determined.
Another alternative is for Harvard to get rid of the requirement that students take a course for credit during January term. Students who want to take more courses during the fall or spring should be allowed to take January off. Students already have the option to take a variable number of credits, so there is no reason they should not be able to “pad” their other semesters and take the winter off if that is how they choose to spend their time. From the Law School’s perspective, this would not only let those students who want to take time off — especially international students for whom the time may be the only time they get with their families — do it, but it might also be a chance to make the 3L paper be taken more seriously than it often is now.
Life at HLS is not so terribly hard as it is, but when it comes to winter term, a little flexibility would go a long way.