(Infographic updated to account for new information)
This time next year, McMaster students could be off on their first-ever fall break, but so far, there have been few signs this will happen in 2013.
With sessional dates to be presented to the Undergraduate Council in December, MSU President Siobhan Stewart has limited time to determine whether her proposed fall break will get the nod from the student body. She will then need to convince University administrators to make a change to next year’s calendar.
Stewart won the MSU presidential campaign in April with ‘fall break 2013’ as a major platform point.
The promised break could manifest itself in several ways, from an extra day off before Thanksgiving weekend to a full reading week.
At this point, Stewart says she’s not sure what she could accomplish in time for 2013.
“I can’t say whether or not a full reading week could happen next year. Something can happen. What that something is, I don’t know yet,” said Stewart, who said she would not identify concrete goals before finding out feasible options and polling students.
“My role is to get student feedback and try to get all the factors. In terms of getting that into the calendar, all I can really do is present [what students want]. I don’t have approval power, but my hope is that with substantial student voice behind me, that will add more weight to whatever it is they’re hoping for,” said Stewart.
As of yet, the MSU has not held a public student forum on fall break. Stewart said a survey of student opinion will be released in early November.
The survey will ask students for feedback on what is possible for fall break next year and whether or not they want to move toward a larger-scale initiative like a fall reading week.
Given the tight timeline for administrative approval, a full week off during fall 2013 is unlikely.
Last week, Ryerson University joined several other universities in the GTA by having its inaugural fall reading week, giving students time off from classes between Oct. 8 and Oct. 12.
It was no easy feat, and Melissa Palermo, Vice President (Education) of the Ryerson Students’ Union can attest.
“We started work on getting a fall reading week in the 2010/2011 year,” said Palermo.
“We first wanted to get students’ opinions on whether or not it was something they wanted, and we got a mandate at our semi-annual general meeting in 2010. We did research on what happened at other campuses and wrote a proposal to the University Senate, and that proposal was passed in January of 2011. The whole process took about a year and a half.”
Phil Wood, Associate Vice President (Student Affairs) at McMaster said there are a number of administrative kinks to work out before a fall break of any kind could happen.
“There are several difficulties that must be worked through on our end. These include things like length of a term and exam schedules, which will need to be dealt with before we could consider even a pilot project,” said Wood.
As is the case for Ryerson, some professional programs at McMaster may not be able to reduce the number of weeks in the semester from 13 to 12.
In particular, engineering students need to spend a higher number of hours in class in order for their program to be accredited.
“Whether or not they would be able to take time off would depend on the steps we are able to take to replace these hours. This would not be a simple task,” said Maria White, Assistant Dean of Engineering.
At Ryerson, the faculty of engineering and architectural science was permitted to re-evaluate whether they wanted a reading week due to their accreditation requirements. Ultimately, the faculty decided not to participate.
“Their options were to find more class time or work through the reading week,” said Palermo.
The fall reading week debate has grown in popularity among Ontario universities over the past few years, with mental health concerns and student stress at the core of the discussion.
Debra Earl, McMaster’s Mental Health Team Nurse, wrote a proposal for fall break for submission to Student Affairs in 2009, to which she says she has received no response.
The report compares McMaster to peer institutions in Ontario and the U.S. and finds McMaster more stringent than other institutions in its scheduling accommodations for students.
The study shows the number of teaching days at McMaster was one of the highest in the province in 2009, with only two non-teaching days in the semester.
McMaster’s exam period (14 days) was also longer than nine other Ontario universities’ in 2009. McMaster had only one ‘study day’ before the start of exams.
“There might be a benefit to having exams spread out more, but what some schools do is have a condensed exam schedule and a longer study period beforehand,” said Earl.
At the time of Earl’s study, Laurentian, Trent, Nipissing and York had week-long breaks during the fall semester. Since then, the University of Ottawa and Ryerson University have jumped on board.
The University of Toronto offers a two-day mid-semester break in November, and Queen’s has a three-day study break in December.
At the moment, it is uncertain whether a fall break would be favourable to the majority of McMaster students, and in what capacity they would want it implemented. It also remains to be seen whether there is enough time to make it happen for the next academic year.
The Undergraduate Council will vote on next year’s sessional dates on Dec. 11. The schedule for 2013-2014 must be finalized before the printing of McMaster’s undergraduate calendar in March.