Calendrical Innovation

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 7.2x1046 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.

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How about the French Revolutionary Calendar? It would show a healthy contempt for royalty which many of us would appreciate after the transatlantic fawning over the royal wedding.

Even more fun, every day of the year has a unique name, which could lead to no end of amusement. "Our meeting to address underage drinking problems will meet on absinthe."

By chem undergrad (not verified) on 27 May 2011 #permalink

I do so like the Mayan system. And you really don't need to mess with the Long Count over the average academic's career -- the Calendar Round gives a unique name for every day over about 52 years. Plus, 5 day new year!

The calendar in Steve Brust's Dragaera has a 289-day year, with 17 months of 17 days, each named after one of the 17 Houses of the Dragaeran Empire (all named after animals). We might have to rename some things to make it more comforting to Earth-based students -- they might remember 'panther' more than 'dzur' for example, though I think 'dragon' and 'phoenix' would pass, and 'hawk' and 'orca' need no change.

By Becca Stareyes (not verified) on 27 May 2011 #permalink

I propose a new unit of cumulative academic time: the mester. A typical lecture would last 10 centimesters, a course lasts one mester, and you'd need to accumulate at least a kilomester to graduate. I call it "the mestric system."

(The Standard Reference Mester, consisting of pure, unalloyed navel-gazing, to be housed under a bell jar in the basement of the Sorbonne.)

If years are important, you could measure everything in years or fractions thereof. A milli-year is approximately a workday, which is convenient.

By Johan Larson (not verified) on 27 May 2011 #permalink

If you want a rational calendar try the ancient Egyptian one. 12 months of thirty days, divided into three 10 day weeks, plus five non-days! Is approximately one quarter of a day too short and so slides backwards against the natural year, which didn't bother the old Egyptians who retained it for four thousand years!

Calendars? Just get rid of them! Let anarchy rule!

I second the revolutionary calendar! You can amend it to have two days off in each ten-day week, instead of just the one. I'm sure you can find a good use for the extra work days.

Although the moment of the Revolution is rather arbitrary, of course. I suggest you start your counting of years at the moment of Creation, like the Jewish calendar does.

You could call it the Rankine calendar ;)

Just to point out that Caltech is also on a quarter system, and has been for at least 40 years.

We're on quarters at OSU as well. We're switching over to semesters beginning in the 2012-13 academic year. The administration promises a smooth transition, but much of the student population, myself included, suspect that it's going to be a mess in which a lot of people get screwed in various ways. Gargantuan institutions like OSU rarely move gracefully. Personally I'm graduating Spring 2012, and couldn't be happier to be getting out in time.

@ Anna. Good point about the second day off. We might also want to put a third somewhere in the middle of the workdays, thus providing a half-time break.

By chem undergrad (not verified) on 28 May 2011 #permalink

I thought the calendar described @5 was of Babylonian origin and, like many other things in our timekeeping system, reflected a base 60 number system. The 5 (or 6, in a leap year) extra days were basically an extended New Year or Saturnalia festival.

That would mean five or six days of bowl games, in our system.

Obsessive numerology note:
The beauty of base 60 is that it is 5x4x3 and thus divisible in many ways. The flaw is that it is not divisible by 7, the day that the Hebrew God rested.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 28 May 2011 #permalink

The OSU or one of the others? (Ah, Google tells me it is THE OSU.) I am sure they are being driven by the Football Calendar, a calendar that somehow escaped Chad's notice.

Chad, part of your discussion might include a comparison of your current calendar, the current OSU calendar (a full 10 weeks, that is 50 class days, plus finals week in the fall) to their proposed one (which looks identical to ours) with a total of 141 days (plus two weeks for finals) in a year.

You can do a lot of physics in those 9 days. Think about what two weeks of physics you will omit from your first-year course. I'll tell you from experience that it is not a small effect.

I'll also add that you only think your faculty are burned out right now. Semesters, even with a spring break, are a long haul for students and faculty alike.

Side comment: The OSU Fall 2012 calendar (Wed start to Tue finish with a weekend in the middle of final exams) is both innovative and potentially problematical. Students with Thurs and Friday finals will party all weekend and into the next week while the poor kids with Monday finals try to study.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 28 May 2011 #permalink

You can do a lot of physics in those 9 days. Think about what two weeks of physics you will omit from your first-year course. I'll tell you from experience that it is not a small effect.

We've already done that. The local practice is to claim that our ten-week trimester courses are actually equivalent to semester courses at other institutions; as a result, our engineering students only take two terms of physics, not a full year. As a result, we're already trying to cram two semesters of physics into only 80 class meetings (3 lectures/week plus lab). As a result, we skip a lot of stuff that would be in a one-year intro program at a semester school.

The issue of quarters for Caltech or THE Ohio State University is a very different one as far as student opportunities go. It's very difficult for even our best students to do REU programs at other institutions, because most of the summer programs start before our classes end. This puts our students at a disadvantage when it comes to graduate school admissions-- they can do lots of REU-type stuff here, but it's not the same thing. If a student at Caltech or tOSU gets excluded from off-campus REU because of schedule conflicts, well, they're not losing that much by doing REU stuff at Caltech or tOSU. Certainly not as much as our students lose by staying here (though it's good for our faculty, I suppose...).

What you are doing makes me wonder how your engineering school stays accredited. They must have some extra classes to make up for what you leave out, unless you are very careful to teach to exactly what ABET requires. But then you mess up what physics majors see, and fix that with an extra class. (Actually, that might be a better way in general.)

The REU problem is caused by the pressure of R1 football programs to have students on campus in August to fill the stands. (I know that is what drove two universities to make the change, even though they would deny it.) Your students could, for example, participate in the ones at tOSU.

I wonder if anyone has studied success rates in the two systems. You can actually see students burn out in those last 5 weeks, especially in the spring.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 30 May 2011 #permalink

How about getting rid of the year and just using days? You can divide the days into centidays, millidays, and microdays, and for bigger units you can have dekadays, hectodays, and kilodays.

P.S., restoring the Julian calendar would require adding *13* days, not two full weeks.

By Christina (not verified) on 30 May 2011 #permalink