Union operates on a trimester calendar, with three ten-week terms (September-November, January-March, April-June), rather than the two 14-15 week semesters used by most other colleges and universities. This has some advantages in terms of flexibility– even science and engineering students get to take terms abroad, which is harder to swing in a semester system– and some disadvantages in terms of scheduling– we run much later than most other schools (the last day of classes is next Friday), which closes our students out of a lot of summer programs that begin in early June.
As you can imagine, this is a topic of intense discussion among the faculty, with both systems having their strong partisans. And as often happens, there has been an attempt to revive the debate in email this week, when everybody is cranky and exhausted at the end of the Spring term.
I find myself somewhat distressed by the constrained nature of the discussion, though. By considering only the trimester and semester options, we are missing out on a major opportunity to differentiate Union from other colleges, as called for in the strategic plan. Thus, I think we need to think more “outside the box,” and consider some more innovative and distinctive calendrical changes.
- For example, there’s the Julian Calendar, used successfully for centuries, but tragically abandoned starting in 1582. Not only would this reform fit with the best traditions of the liberal arts, it would provide a great opportunity: when Tsarist Russia finally abandoned the Julian calendar in 1918, they needed to “skip” 13 days to synch up with the Gregorian calendar. Moving back to the Julian calendar now would require us to add two full weeks, not part of any existing month or academic term. Think what a boon that would be for faculty productivity!
- Adopting the Maya calendar would not only show respect to non-Western traditions, its current trendiness would give us a hip and edgy sort of senibility that would be attractive to bright and creative students. The disadvantage of such a switch would be that the system of three interlocking calendars used by the Maya is very complex, but if we move quickly, we could take advantage of the fact that all three cycles start over from zero next December. This is an opportunity not to be missed.
- Moving even further out of that pesky box, we could consider a rationalization of the whole calendrical system. For example, while there are 365 days in the year, we mark the passage of time in 7-day weeks, leading to all sorts of mathematical inconveniences. If we switched to a system of five-day weeks, all the problems of incommensurate numbering would be avoided. This would also likely be a big hit with students, especially if we kept the two-day weekend, which would give them at least 40% weekend time, which is what many of them are really after.
- Going even more rational, we could adopt the second-based system used by the spacefaring Qeng Ho in Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, where time is marked off in “kiloseconds,” (16 minutes and 40 seconds) and “megaseconds” (about 11.6 days). This would provide great advantages for those of us in the physical sciences, who would no longer need to worry about confusion induced when converting between archaic units like “miles per hour” and the clean and sensible “meters per second.” The down side of this system is that it doesn’t match very well with natural day-night and seasonal cycles, but then, we are academics, and nobody expects us to know what time it is, anyway.
- The most extreme rationalization would be to move to the “natural units” of theoretical physics, marking the passage of time in Planck times. If coupled with a switch to a natural length standard, this would eliminate the need to remember the speed of light (which is 1 in these units). As a bonus, having classes lasting 7.2×1046 time units would force students to become more comfortable with scientific notation.
I am sure there are countless other historical, fictional, or physical systems we could use as inspiration. Feel free to suggest your favorite in the comments. We shouldn’t miss this great opportunity to set ourselves apart from the pack, and boldly lead the academy forward into the Century of the Anchovy.