The rocky history of Colby’s JanPlan

In a place like Colby, where students relish in diverse and strong opinions, it is often hard to find favorable consensus around any one thing. One prominent exception to that statement is January Plan (known most commonly as JanPlan). Since January 1962, JanPlan has played a crucial role in the Mule identity. Many alumni and students alike cite JanPlan as the backdrop for some of their most cherished experiences. Whether these memories come from learning to knit, studying the geology of Bermuda, or working at a bank, the opportunity for students to pursue personal passions outside the academic norm remains a valuable aspect of the Colby experience.

However, in spite of JanPlan’s popularity, the program has always had its detractors, dating back to its inception. When the plan was first introduced in 1959, Earl H. Smith noted in his definitive Colby history, Mayflower Hill, that the faculty’s initial reception to the plan was “lukewarm.” The following year, when faculty members voted on adoption, the final tally was 53 for, 31 against, and three abstaining—hardly a sign of overwhelming enthusiasm. And yet, beyond Mayflower Hill, other colleges took notice of Colby’s new 4-1-4 program. By 2000, over 160 American colleges had followed in Colby’s footsteps and adopted a January term.

As the program went underway, criticisms were nearly as common as praise. Smith writes that the most common critique came from an “overall lack of academic rigor.” This problem was unforeseen by many as President Strider—JanPlan’s chief proponent—had tried to remedy the issue by requiring all students to take four JanPlans. “Otherwise,” Strider said, some students “might consider the month a gratuitous opportunity for skiing and little else.” However, as any Colby student knows, plentiful leisure time defines the month for many students.

Aside from the criticisms that students posed to the program, many members of the faculty had issues with JanPlan as well. By the end of the century, Smith writes, “less than 15 to 20 percent of the faculty was taking January duty.”

Harriet S. Wiswell and George C. Wiswell Jr. Associate Professor of American Constitutional Law, Joseph Reisert noted that he did not teach a JanPlan class between the years of 1997 and 2008, which was normal.

One explanation for the lack of faculty enthusiasm was the condensed nature of the program. Reisert explained, “If I were going to try to compress Government 171 [Introduction to Political Theory] into four weeks, I would have to give students 50 pages of Aristotle every night,” which would be followed by “dense conversations day after day… I don’t think people could absorb it.”

While Strider’s original intention for JanPlan was to create a period devoted to scholarly and exploratory work, this purely academic approach was untenable for many professors and rejected by many students. In the late 2000’s, the Board of Trustees became concerned by the faculty’s aversion to the program and worked to reform it. Reisert, who was on the Academic Affairs Council at the time, attended a faculty meeting where they debated the future of JanPlan. During the course of the meeting, “some thought was given to abolishing it,” he said. While the idea was talked about, it was ultimately superseded by other ideas. One notable reform was requiring majors to take at least one JanPlan in that major, though this idea was abandoned, because it “would lead to substantial reshuffling in many departments.”

The faculty ultimately decided to build on JanPlan’s original “offbeat and exploratory” intent, “embracing a more pluralistic, smorgasbord version of JanPlan.” In addition to traditional, rigorous courses, the College began to promote internships, off-campus study, and, in Reisert’s words, “uniquely JanPlan courses” like learning to play African drums and meditation. Students and faculty members alike welcomed these reforms, and JanPlan was revived.

Today, JanPlan serves a variety of purposes and interests. Anognya Parthasarathy ’16 noted JanPlan gives students opportunities to explore and give “insight into complex subjects in a short period of time.” Ian Mansfield ’19 emphasized JanPlan’s flexibility. “I think it’s a unique opportunity to take a cool class, gain work experience, or travel without having to miss a semester.” While JanPlan has been revised countless times over the years, it has not only persisted, but thrived in the years since. No matter what a student chooses to explore, JanPlan allows them the ability to do it, even if it’s skiing and little else.

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