John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

End of Term

John Gardner

Usually I can explain, at least to myself, the way my mind works. So this posting is about a tourist visit I made while on vacation in France with my wife, Betsy Barefoot. Said visit making me think of what time of the academic year it was back home—“end of term.”

Betsy and I were outside the charming village of St.Remy-De-Provence in France, where we visited the mental asylum St-Paul-de-Mausolee. This is the facility where the artist, Vincent Van Gogh spent the last full year of his life, 1889-90, when at the peak of both his madness and creativity he was so inspired by the beauty surrounding him, including nearby archeological ruins of extraordinary significance, known as Glanum, literally just a few minutes’ walk away. The artist discharged himself and shortly thereafter committed suicide. Visitors like ourselves can enter the building where he resided, visit his quarters and look out his sleeping room window to see the same view that had to have inspired him too.

Van Gogh’s room in what still is today a psychiatric hospital, for women only, is exactly the size of an American college student’s residence hall room. And this made me think of our students as they are at “the end of term” but hopefully, not at “the end of term” in the sense that Van Gogh was.

How fortunate we are to live in an era when the kind of depression, bi-polar disorder, that afflicted and killed Van Gogh, can at least be treated, managed, if not prevented, by modern medicine. Still, the end of term is one of those turning points in the academic and personal lives of our students that are stressful, and at which time students often make decisions which are not in their best long term interests.

Not so many years ago the prominent US higher education researcher, Clifford Adelman, in his now well disseminated so-called Toolbox presented us with compelling data demonstrating the correlation between attending summer school and ultimate degree attainment. Taking part in any amount of summer school accumulation of academic credit favorably advantaged students for graduation. Summer school is a way then of staying connected.

So we need to urge our students to consider ways that they could stay connected, to us that is, even though after finals they may feel compelled to disconnect, physically withdraw for a period, earn money to return, etc. But as we know from many other college student behavioral choices, the decisions they make often only exacerbate the original conditions that put them under stress in the first place, like drinking excessively or going home for visits as a means to cope with homesickness.

At the end of term then is a good time for you to help your students reflect on the significance of the term, where they are now in their college journey, what mileposts have they passed but yet have in front of them.

It is a good time for them to NOT make major decisions about whether or not to return.

It is a good time for them to make the one last herculean effort to “pull their grades out”.

It is a good time to remind them that in some courses, there is still hope for the power of redemption and that not all faculty grade simply on the basis of mathematical averages.

It is a good time to get them to consider some things they could do over the summer that would insure greater academic success when they return and forms of staying “connected” during the summer hiatus.

One way of staying connected is to stay connected with you, literally.

Another would be to participate in study abroad, or now more commonly, internships.

The very notion of “end of term” and of summer break, recalls of course the original rationale for giving college students the summer off. It was all tied to the original agricultural cycle when the young were needed “home” to labor in the fields, to help the family, and just to continue and extend the public school culture. In an era when only a tiny fraction of college students are still needed on the family farm over the summer months, the very notion of “end of term” seems anachronistic. And it is. But students still experience this as a “transition” and it is one more transition of which we need to be mindful, supportive, and perhaps even directive.

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