January 19, 2009
Lees-McRae College Embarks On Pilot J-Term

Lees-McRae College just wrapped up its pilot January Term, or, as it's known around campus, J-term. This three-week semester will occur just prior to the spring semester and has created some very unique opportunities inside and outside of the classroom.

"We wanted to afford students the opportunity to experience a different type of class, and faculty the chance to exercise their creativity in developing and teaching the new classes. In general, J-term courses are intended to focus on topics of high interest, and class sessions are intended to be much more interactive," said Lees-McRae College Provost, Dr. Debra Thatcher.

Although the J-term is a relatively new idea to Lees-McRae, colleges across the country have been utilizing its opportunities for years. These include such institutions as Elon University, Mt. Holyoke College, St. Mary's College, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Virginia. When the University of Virginia ran their pilot J-term back in 2005, 100 percent of the students who participated in post-J-term evaluations indicated that the university should continue to offer the J-term; Lees-McRae is hoping for similar results.

On the campus of Lees-McRae College, faculty members were excited to have the freedom to teach courses, and course material, that they could not teach during a normal semester. This also includes the opportunity for travel courses, both domestic and international.

"The [J-term] course I'm offering is "Jesus in Hollywood." This exploration into the Jesus film genre would not work well during a regular semester due to the fact that we need significant amounts of time to analyze and discuss these interesting and diverse films," said Ken Craig, Professor of Religious Studies.

The J-term course is set-up so that students are in class for three hours Monday through Friday for the duration of the semester. This allows the professors an outlet to do a more creative and interactive curriculum.

"January term presents a unique venue for students to engage in academic coursework from a new and different perspective compared to traditional semesters," said Graham Spann, Associate Professor of Sociology. "In my Sociology of Food course, for example, students get exposure to research on how food matters…In addition to pedagogy centered on books and papers, this class lends itself to travel. So for the first time at Lees-McRae, we are using the January Term to branch out from the Banner Elk campus and go on a road trip. We begin a nine day adventure in Memphis, TN …Between Memphis and New Orleans is the Mississippi River, and phase two of our trip takes us through Batesville, Greenville, and Natchez, MS…Next, New Orleans…Finally, Birmingham."

There will also be a substantial amount of international travel during current and subsequent J-terms. The plans are already made for a trip to Fiji in 2010 which will focus on everything from understanding coral reef ecology and the effects of global warming to the Fijian culture and their belief structure and values of sustainability.

"The course is being taught in the J-term because that short 3-week term is perfect for travelling long distances for an intensive period of study for a significant number of credit hours…Another consideration is that it's a great way of getting away from the cold for a while in the depths of winter!" said Dr. Fiona Chrystall, Associate Professor of Environmental Science.

During the initial J-term, Scott Crawford, the Director of the Global Community Center, took a group of ten students and staff to Mexico to live with, and learn from, a group of Benedictine Nuns.

"[These] Sisters have one overriding mission that guides their endeavors, and that is the pursuit of social justice in Mexico. They are driven by their faith in these efforts, and are not about to get hung up on dogma. Instead, they deliver an unfiltered look at the challenges faced by Mexico's poor in the purest way possible: by taking their guests out to meet the people themselves-experiential education at its best. Over the course of ten days, our group sat through just three lectures from "experts", university professors and government officials who stopped by to provide context on the economic, political and religious climate currently affecting Mexican society. The rest of the time was spent among the poor and marginalized peoples of Mexico," said Crawford.

From a liberal arts standpoint, Lees-McRae is ready to give their students yet another opportunity to gain a well-rounded, but not necessarily traditional, education by implementing the J-term. This is an amazing opportunity for students and faculty to experiment together and think outside of the orthodox educational box, so to speak.

"J-term allows students and faculty alike to focus on one course in an intensive manner for three weeks. As such, there is much more freedom to move away from traditional modes of teaching to more active engagement, such as class projects, field trips, and study abroad. I think faculty and students alike will find the J-term experience to be exciting, something to look forward to each year as a change of pace," said Thatcher.

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