Op-Ed: The Module System is Unsustainable, Here’s Why

By Trinity Nguyen || Contributing Writer

Photo Courtesy of fandm.edu

On June 22nd, two months before the start of the Fall 2020 semester, F&M announced the implementation of the 2020 academic year’s module system. The academic schedule divides each semester into 4 terms, 7 weeks each, with an optional J-term between for those who choose to take it. However, the announcement of the change in the academic schedule was made too late. Universities who plan on transitioning to a different mode of learning typically take at least a year to prepare. For example, Dartmouth revised its semester system in 1957 and adopted the module system the following year. 

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the module system gained more traction. The John Hopkins Newsletter recently published an op-ed advocating for a transition to a quarter system amongst American universities. The op-ed explains that “under a quarter system, schools operate with four shorter class terms: fall, winter, spring, and summer. Instead of two long class terms during the standard academic year, there are three, each lasting about 10 weeks.” Dartmouth, for instance, operates under a three-term 10 weeks system. The University of California also offers three terms with each lasting ten weeks; F&M ambitiously is aiming for seven. 

Within our regular semester system, each course lasts roughly 14 weeks. It would have been more realistic for the college to have chosen the 10 weeks system, but instead, it forced professors to condense 14 weeks’ worth of materials and lectures into 7 weeks within a two-month time frame.

This last-minute change forced students to adapt to a different learning environment, which values rapid pacing over intellectual rumination. Students are expected to take on intensive coursework materials every day instead of two or three times a week, hindering their ability to properly process the given information. The module system, in turn, emphasizes the quantity of material much students can consume rather than the degree to which they can synthesize and critically analyze what they’ve learned. Classes have turned into a repetitive process of memorization, a process of swallowing chunks of information for the next day of class, only for our minds to forget it once we’re forced to digest new material the next day. 

F&M implemented the module system under the false assumption that every class administers roughly the same amount of homework, which would be spread evenly throughout the semester. This assumption is dramatically off-base; art and film courses, for instance, are not condensed, they are cut in half. 

Dean Wesson’s email highlights that “the priority behind this proposal is […] experience as students,” but what is student experience? Ironically, students responded with frustrated explanations of how the module system robs them of in-depth knowledge from courses, leaving them feeling less invested and failing to grasp any valuable information beyond a surface-level overview. Other students highlighted the setbacks of the module system; they will be a semester behind in the 7 weeks system, obstructing their ability to manage advanced courses and prepare for graduate programs.

Additionally, the condensed curriculum makes it extremely hard for students to keep up with the module’s rapid pace, particularly requirements to read jargon-heavy content. For first-generation college students who come from underfunded public schools, the module system makes higher education all the more inaccessible. Although these students are indeed fit for an F&M education, their academic background does not match that of those who attended well-funded private high schools for whom reading advanced texts and crafting complex research papers were commonplace. Furthermore, students who are working remotely at home may not be performing at their full capability, as they are surrounded by detrimental factors such as hostile family relationships and non-affirming environments. 

Not to mention, work-study students are forced to work a normal 10-15 hour weekly schedule while adapting to the new system of intense, condensed learning. Those who are financially secure enough to not have to work can take advantage of extra time for learning. Even less accommodated are the students who are home babysitting or working for their family. F&M often highlights its students’ perseverance and strength, yet the college refuses to meet their basic needs. 

Ultimately, the module system is ableist. For students who have some form of learning disabilities, accelerated learning completely disregards all their needs while making it even more difficult to learn and process information. Everyone learns at different speeds, but that does not mean that those with learning disabilities aren’t capable of successfully completing coursework—it is the current system that sets them up for failure. 

F&M loves to stress the importance of community and a collectivist outlook. While I wholeheartedly agree with this ideal, this module system, unfortunately, robs campus of any sense of community. The F&M Wellness Center acknowledges that the condensed semester feels overwhelming, recognizing that students have already submitted papers only two weeks in. Yet the only advice they receive is to breathe and ask for help from F&M community members. Under normal circumstances, reaching out to community members like deans, professors, and HAs seems fair, but this module system overworks people in these roles. Students and faculty are now forced to acclimate to an anxiety-inducing mode of learning while also being expected to serve as therapists and counselors for others. It’s not realistic. It places the responsibility of our mental health into other students and faculty who, too, are struggling to stay afloat. 

Also, the module system runs counter to the culture of rigor and “enriched learning” that F&M loves to tout. The module system turned the focus of class from critical thinking and discussion to rout memorization and consumption. This mode of learning could have been a great opportunity for F&M to reassess its concept of quality education, yet we again conflate quantity of work with academic prestige. This culture of rigor persists in our community, in which a competitive mindset defines our intellectuality by the amount of work we are able to complete. 

It is worth acknowledging, however, the college’s creative efforts amidst the pandemic—albeit the outcomes are unsatisfactory. Some students cannot afford to take a gap year or a gap semester right now, so this module system, as intense as it is, is their only choice of learning that’ll ensure they graduate. Although the module system may work for some, it is also important to recognize that students need support now more than ever. If the majority of the student body and faculty are struggling, there is indeed a problem. 

Junior Trinity Nguyen is a Contributing Writer. Her email is tnguyen8@fandm.edu

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