Dateline, Waterville—Jan Plan 1962. It was a cold and lonely outpost on the frontier of innovative education.
"A month of the college year devoted to independent study by the whole student body, on a diversity of subjects, creates a new outlook on learning." That's how the journal Liberal Education summed up President Robert E.L. Strider's 1962 article about the inaugural year of Colby's pioneering experiment.
Much has changed in a half century, perhaps most notably the global reach of Jan Plan. Last year three dozen students did international internships for credit in 25 different countries. Many more did independent study or research abroad, and among scores of courses offered during the month, 10 incorporated an international travel component.
Now in its 50th anniversary year, the January Program endures as a "defining characteristic of the undergraduate experience at Colby," a 2009 faculty review of the program concluded. "Students are overwhelmingly positive about Jan Plan. None want to eliminate it and few have suggestions for improvements," according to an analysis by Associate Professor Alec Campbell (sociology).
Colby led the charge up Jan Plan mountain, but it wasn't lonely at the top for long. Soon more than 400 colleges and universities had some version of the short-term schedule. Today 120 schools in the Higher Education Directory claim a 4-1-4 (describing the typical course loads in each term) calendar. That doesn't include variations like Bates's 4-4-1 "short term" in the spring.
Obscured by 50 years of history is that Jan Plan was proposed as a solution to a nagging scheduling complaint. Professors and students were annoyed that courses in the fall semester were interrupted by the end-of-year holidays, which created a couple of disconnected classes in January followed by first-semester exams. "It was a bit of an awkward, listless stretch," recalls Pugh Family Professor of Economics Emeritus Hank Gemery, who started at Colby in 1961.
The 4-1-4 calendar remedied the situation at Colby. Subsequently, particularly in years of oil embargoes and energy crises, other colleges adopted calendars that end first semester before the holidays and then simply stay closed until the last week of January.
But alumni who were on campus at the time recall the thrill of trying something new and so different. "I just remember there was a lot of excitement about it," said Paulette French '63, a student for two years before and two years after Jan Plan started. "We were really thrilled at this opportunity to do independent work."
French spent January reading and researching works by Albert Camus. She was so energized that she proposed a Senior Scholars project on French literature. Her thesis, "The Insatiable Seeker: A study of the concept of individual freedom in the works of André Gide," won a literary prize in France, which led to a year abroad, which led to a master's degree, which led to a Ph.D. in comparative literature. She traces it to the first-ever Jan Plan. "It led me into academic life more seriously."
Faculty and administration reviews also were positive. After the inaugural term Strider wrote in Liberal Education that "faculty reaction ranged from mild approval to vigorous enthusiasm," He quoted a professor who said, "The atmosphere was charged with excitement." A student referendum endorsed the experiment six to one despite students' propensities, Strider wrote, to vote "'no' on any administration or faculty proposal simply on principle."
Part of the faculty's enthusiasm was for the flexibility, Gemery said. "There was real pressure on a new professor," trying to balance teaching with finishing a Ph.D. dissertation and developing new courses. Initially professors were expected to be on one year and off the next. Faculty members became more research-oriented in ensuing decades, "and Jan Plan is a time for doing a fair bit of that," he said.
A 1972 article in the Journal of Higher Education cited Colby and Florida Presbyterian (Florida Presbyterian, now Eckerd, opened its doors in 1960-61 with a 4-1-4 calendar; Colby was first to adapt its existing calendar) as early adopters. Joan Stark of Goucher College wrote, "The task of describing the current national trends among schools which have adopted the 4-1-4 academic calendar is quite like Charles Darwin's attempt to describe the many varieties of finches which adaptively evolved on the Galapagos Islands."
It's just a coincidence, but last year Leslie Brainerd Arey Professor of Biology Herb Wilson took the Ecological Field Study Jan Plan to the Galapagos to see those finches, among other flora and fauna. This year the Sundance Film Festival, Costa Rica, Russia, Belize, and Italy are among destinations for Jan Plan courses.
On-campus courses not for academic credit that are perennially popular include blacksmithing, woodworking, and an Emergency Medical Technician course that leads to Basic-EMT certification. Premed Academy, which includes shadowing area physicians, was introduced last year.
The opportunity for January internships is a big advantage for students, who increasingly need that experience on their résumés when they hit the job market after graduation, said Terry Cowdrey, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid. Jan Plan is a distinction for Colby, she said. "It's something we talk about a lot."
Anecdotal evidence in 50-year-old memories conforms with written accounts from Strider and Stark: students loved Jan Plan from the get-go. "My friends all bought into it wholeheartedly," said John Chapman ’62, a senior that first year. The business administration major spent the month studying Calvinist and Protestant foundations of capitalism, meeting once a week with Professor Walter Zukowski. Both Chapman and French still have copies of their first Jan Plan papers.
Five decades later, the College's study of Jan Plan found that a significant cohort of students now take courses for credit in January to fulfill graduation requirements. It fits with the seriousness of many high-achieving Colby students who want to get ahead early. Jordan Lorenz '15 for example.
Lorenz said Jan Plan was "one of the deciding factors" when he was deciding where to attend. With many schools touting exploration and creativity, Lorenz was impressed that Colby was "willing to set aside a whole month for something I want to study," whether or not it related to major or future career.
He initially signed up to take a philosophy course, thinking it might move him along toward a double major in philosophy. Then, after his mother inquired about his January plans, she asked, "But isn't Jan Plan about doing something different?"
When he returns to campus Jan. 3, Lorenz will begin a theater and dance course instead: Solo Performance Workshop: From Folktale to Your Tale, on Stage. He will develop a solo piece and eventually perform it.
Happy golden anniversary, Jan Plan.
For details on Jan Plan courses and reports from interns, bloggers, and researchers see http://www.colby.edu/JanPlan