January - a time when offbeat courses shine

Quick: What do the Brothers Grimm, California beat culture, auto mechanics, and the "political themes" of Bruce Springsteen have in common?

If you answered "nothing," you would be almost right. The tenuous link is that each is the subject of a college course in "January term" - higher education's annual ritual of academic frivolity in which professors and students grapple with the intellectually wild and whacky.

It's a time of year when otherwise constrained professors can loosen their ties and skate right up to - and perhaps just beyond - the edge of academic propriety, pushing the envelope of what is acceptable as a college course.

At Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., Prof. W. Scot Morrow is teaching "The Novels of Tom Clancy," which will "examine the threats to our nation as depicted in the thrilling fiction of Tom Clancy." The course description notes, too, that special emphasis will be placed on "lessons of history" and "ingredients of moral leadership" in the books.

While Mr. Clancy's books are a compelling read for millions, nobody has accused the popular author of providing much more depth to his characters than, say, Gumby's creator gave his. Still, it's a nice break from Beowulf.

That's precisely the point. January term is supposed to be fun as well as enlightening - a time for faculty and students to explore realms that might not otherwise fit into their academic plan.

"We don't think of these courses as being lighter - just different," says Annmarie Wiseman, assistant dean of the college at Wofford. She runs the interim program, which includes among others a physics course exploring the possibilities of time travel and a literature class on detective fiction.

A risk-free way to branch out

Students at Wofford are required to pass four interim courses before graduation. The pass/fail arrangement encourages students to branch out and explore new subjects by limiting the potential damage to the student's grade- point average, Dr. Wiseman says.

The quasi-academic tradition evolved during the 1970s energy crisis, when many colleges lengthened winter break to cut costs. Somewhere along the line, as oil prices came down and guilt set in, academics were restored - sort of.

Nobody tracks how many of the nation's more than 2,300 four-year institutions have a January term. They seem to appear at all types of colleges.

Highly selective Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., has them, for instance. But Harvard University sticks to its serious academic knitting by providing students with an 11-day, no-nonsense "reading period" to prepare for finals still to be taken for fall semester courses.

Most January courses are more like "Psychology of Fairy Tales," a popular for-credit freshman-only course at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. Students read and analyze "Hansel and Gretel," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and other tales for clues to the "explicit and implicit messages" conveyed about culture, the course-description states.

Not surprisingly, such courses often spring from professors' own personal interests.

Elizabeth Bennett, assistant professor of psychology at Washington and Jefferson, teaches the Grimm-based course, which also includes several other cultures' fairy tales.

"January is a chance for faculty to teach things they're excited about that they don't have a chance to do during the semester," says Dr. Bennett, whose interest in children's literature and fairy tales stretches back to her own childhood.

Yet even when professors know they're having fun exploring a personal interest, they can be concerned about perceptions.

Take, for instance, the "Visions of California Seminar," an American-studies class offered at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Michael Kowalewski will lead his 23 students, most of them Midwesterners, on a Kerouacian trek across the Golden State to sample its culture.

They'll meet beat poet Gary Snyder at his Buddhist-inspired enclave and high-tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Along the way they'll read Nathaniel West and Raymond Chandler - and Jack Kerouac. After sampling writings of naturalist John Muir they will hike through Yosemite National Park.

"This is not a 'Surf's up, dude' kind of seminar," Professor Kowalewski emphasizes, pointing out that journals, essays, tests, and required reading give it the "intellectual intensity" of a graduate seminar.

His fondness for the state and his study of the gold rush were behind his desire to teach a class where pale Midwesterners could soak up sunshine and West Coast thought. It's a natural step for an intellectual to get close to a subject like this one - especially in January, he says.

Global and mobile

Others are less shy about linking fun-in-the-sun and academics. At Furman University in Greenville, S.C., computer science majors flee a mild winter for the even balmier breezes of Jamaica. Students will help local business go global using the Internet - with free time spent at the beach.

There is also proof that the practical is popular among the Eastern elite - especially when it comes to cars. Williams College is offering "How to Buy a Car."

The women of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., are also into the auto scene, and they don't mind getting a little grease under their fingernails. About 60 students have signed up (and there's a long waiting list) for "Basic Auto Mechanics," a noncredit class taught by "Professors" David Cleveland and Dave Motyka, two of the college's vehicle-fleet mechanics.

"The best thing was learning how to change oil because it's really simple - that, and just learning the names of parts," says Alexandra Chitty, a senior. "We got a snazzy new vocabulary - spark plugs, rotors, that sort of thing."

E-mail claytonm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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