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Swarthmore J-Term Brings New Academic Opportunities to the Tri-Co

Throughout the pandemic, Haverford has kept its academic schedule similar to years past, but Swarthmore chose a different path. Alongside the traditional two-semester system, Swarthmore introduced a January term, known as a “J-term”: from January 4 to January 28, all Swarthmore students took one class that met every day.

Several other liberal arts colleges, such as Middlebury College and Colby College, have offered J-term programs for many years, often including study abroad and internship opportunities as well as coursework.

“The J-term was a great idea,” said Matt Salah ’21, an economics major at Swarthmore. “I appreciated being able to direct my focus on just one class.”

Along with introducing a J-term, Swarthmore encouraged students to only take three courses during the fall semester to decrease workload and pandemic fatigue. Yet, the move somewhat backfired: Salah, who missed a semester of credits after his spring study abroad program was cut, needed to take five credits both fall and spring semesters.

“I wasn’t allowed to take the five credits I needed in the fall, but thankfully the J-term allowed me to make up for the missing credit and the school agreed to let students take five credits in the spring,” said Salah.

Although Haverford and Bryn Mawr both decided to keep the traditional two-semester system, they did consider following Swarthmore’s lead in instituting a J-term. 

“The development of an inter-term or summer term was among the array of possible adaptations discussed early in COVID continuity planning,” wrote Jesse Lytle, Haverford’s Vice President and Chief of Staff, in an email to The Clerk. However, ultimately the faculty’s commitment to making all courses available online in the fall—a commitment which “demanded extraordinary time and energy on the part of professors”—convinced Haverford and Bryn Mawr to keep a similar overall structure. 

That didn’t stop Haverford students from participating in Swarthmore’s January term. Numbers provided by James Keane, Registrar and Associate Dean of the College, reveal that 38 Haverford students took courses at Swarthmore in January. Moreover, 84 Haverford students attempted to participate: Swarthmore only accepted 45% of requests.

Jasper Barbash-Taylor ’22 took “Markets and Morality” during the J-term, co-taught by two professors from the economics and political science departments. As a philosophy major at Haverford, he enjoyed the opportunity to immerse himself in a new subject.

Barbash-Taylor also credits the J-term with helping him become less anxious about academic writing: since the course packed a full semester of learning into only a month, he had to submit an essay every week. “Now I can write a good paper really quickly, and my writing has gotten much better,” he said.

After the success of Swarthmore’s J-term, it will be interesting to see if the college runs a similar program in the future—and if the rest of the Tri-Co decides to also adopt one. For his part, Barbash-Taylor is “100%” on board with Haverford setting up a J-term of its own. “I wish that I had had this option during sophomore year or even earlier,” he added.

“[A J-term] could still be considered in the future,” said Lytle. “Such an addition would require further thought as to its specific purpose and construction within the Bi-Co academic program.”

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