• Photo showcase: Hastings College J-term.
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HASTINGS, Neb. — For one month each year, Hastings College students have just one class on their minds.
Which class is up to them. Some practice landscape photography in New Mexico or learn marine conservation in Honduras. Others stay on campus and examine the history of hell, take piano lessons or experiment with the science behind sound.
A dozen of the more intrepid sign up for a stint as a prairie pioneer, camping in the cold and walking nearly 30 miles pulling a Mormon hand cart in the name of art.
It's all part of the semester between fall and spring known as a January term or J-term, a concept first popularized in the 1960s at liberal arts colleges that has since dwindled in popularity.
While many colleges offer compressed courses between terms or schedule study abroad trips on breaks, the traditional J-term — offered at only two Nebraska colleges and a handful of Iowa schools — is included in tuition and intended more for exploration than catching up on credits.
At the colleges that still offer it, the J-term has become a key piece of what they hope will differentiate them from their competition and give students an intellectual edge, even if time has somewhat diluted its original mission.
“The whole idea of it at first was that we'd do something different,” said Dwayne Strasheim, dean emeritus and professor of English and linguistics at Hastings who has overseen the J-term since its inception in 1967. “It was a very vital, intellectually challenging, but at the same time, pleasurable experience.”
Students return from Christmas break a bit earlier than most of their counterparts at other institutions and get out a bit later in May. Trips abroad, classes in music or art or anything that wouldn't fit neatly in a traditional schedule are the aim. Professors often team up across disciplines.
Strasheim, who will retire this year, said he thinks necessity has pulled the J-term away somewhat from its foundation. Students can use the term to take a course they're missing or do an internship. Class offerings are a bit more tame now, Strasheim said. But the purpose remains relevant, he and the administration believe.
Support is also still strong at Midland University in Fremont, where the school has been gathering donor support to help more students go abroad for their interterms.
Taking the January classes is optional, said Steven Bullock, vice president for academic affairs, but nearly three-fourths of students are enrolled this year. Though about half of them take routine classes — it's necessary to offer those as part of their four-year graduation promise to students, Bullock said — there are still plenty of options.
“When you're taking one course, it allows you to delve deeply into something, and I think the interterm serves that purpose really well,” he said.
Doane College in Crete will drop its January term next year in favor of a traditional calendar. Instead, students will take seminars each year that count as electives but have the same spirit and build on one another each year, said John Burney, vice president for academic affairs at Doane.
“The big thing for me is the sense that there's only so much you can do in the three-week session for the creativity we wanted to happen,” Burney said.
Support for the J-term remains strong at Hastings, according to academic dean Gary Johnson.
Everyone from students to faculty to administrators have to be behind the concept for it to work, Johnson said, and they still have that mix in Hastings.
“It's not just a three-week stretch between semesters,” Johnson said. “We need to recommit every year. We are making sure every year it continues to mean what we think it should mean.”
When Hastings senior Kyle Beaman transferred from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and learned about the extra semester, he didn't get the point. But he has taken classes on radio broadcasting and glass-blowing.
This month, Beaman took part in the adventure art class: pioneer-style camping at the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island and a two-day walk back to Hastings. The art comes in when the students and professor turn their pictures and videos from the experience into a documentary-style video.
“This walk, that's something that I would never do,” Beaman said. “It's the kind of opportunity to find out for real who you are.”
He and seven other students spent three days living the authentic and frigid prairie life by camping without modern amenities, building fires and using Dutch ovens to make their own food. They slept in a cabin with a small space heater but largely warmed by a wood stove. They wore period clothes they sewed themselves.
The adventure followed two weeks spent carefully planning every detail of the trip and its documentation, from who would shoot video to whether to bring their own live chickens for food (vetoed) or use modern toilets (approved).
The adventure art class is the precise example offered by assistant professor of art Steve Snell when he was asked during his job interview what his dream class would be. Because of the J-term, he was teaching it his first year.
“This is a class that they probably will never want to do again but won't regret,” Snell said. “It may be one of the most difficult things they ever do, but that's what makes it rewarding.”
After the trip, the students planned a party on campus. But the reality of the trip set in, and after several days of roughing it and nearly 30 miles walking over two days, Beaman said he and his classmates basically just collapsed.
Some parts were awesome, he said, and others were brutal.
Would he ever do it again? Beaman laughed.
He'd have to think about that. Probably not, he decided, but he's glad he did it once.