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The times they are a-changin’: five decades of Bowdoin time blocks and recent developments

December 3, 2021

In the weeks before Thanksgiving break, students and faculty registered for classes for the Spring 2022 semester. For every student, the timing of next semester’s classes was a consideration. Some students grappled with interfering class times, while others chose carefully-curated schedules.

Though not always at the forefront of students’ attention, Bowdoin’s time block schedule has undergone major changes over the past few years, largely with the aim of increasing student access to course options and accommodating online instruction during the 2020-21 academic year.

Courtesy of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine
BACK IN TIME: An archived example of the outline for the College's 1951 First Term Summer final exam schedule.

The College’s decision to alter its course schedule has occurred several times throughout its history.

Undoubtedly the most drastic change to the time block schedule occurred in the Fall semester of 1969, when the College shortened its academic week from six days (Monday to Saturday) to the current Monday to Friday, five-day schedule.

In the final iteration of the six-day time block schedule, last used in Spring 1969, all courses met three days per week (either Monday, Wednesday and Friday or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday), with five one-hour blocks each day. Classes began at 8:00 a.m. and ended at 2:30 p.m.

The first five-day time block schedule kept most of the previous time blocks but introduced Tuesday-Thursday blocks lasting 90 minutes each—a length that was new at the time but is common today.

A decade after the introduction of the five-day week  the College began using 90-minute blocks for Monday-Wednesday courses. Courses meeting during this block overlapped with those meeting during the 60-minute blocks that were common on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The problem of overlap between time blocks of different lengths limited students’ course choices for many years, although recent efforts have largely remediated the problem.

Class scheduling conflicts have increased over time primarily due to increases in the Bowdoin student and faculty populations over the past few decades.

“As we added more students, more faculty joined the College,” the Registrar of the College, Martina Duncan ’97, said. “Therefore, we had more classes [to] offer, and we added some course blocks that overlapped each other.”

By the mid-1990s, the College offered courses scheduled during five 90-minute blocks that met on Tuesdays and Thursdays and less popular 90-minute blocks that met on Mondays and Wednesdays. Other courses were scheduled into 60-minute time blocks that met on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, some of which overlapped with the 90-minute blocks that met on those days.

Duncan, who herself was a student in that era of the time block schedule, has played an integral role in implementing changes to the schedule since she assumed her position in 2015.

Duncan saw an opportunity for changes to alleviate classroom management issues, such as placing lectures and seminars in appropriate classroom spaces.

“[The structure] made the classrooms hard to assign [because] certain classrooms are needed for certain pedagogies,” she explained. “If [courses] are spread out a little bit better, then faculty can access classrooms that they need and want to teach their classes.”

Changes implemented since Duncan’s arrival as registrar include the extension of the passing time between time blocks from five minutes to ten, a reduction of the number of 8:00 a.m. classes in favor of more popular 8:30 a.m. start times and the creation of time blocks that allow for introductory language courses to meet four or five days per week without limiting students’ other course choices.

Additionally, it has become more common for courses to be taught only two days each week as opposed to three. This semester, approximately 80 percent of courses are taught twice a week according to Duncan; in the 1980s, this figure hovered around 50 percent.

Faculty members have contributed vital input as decisions regarding scheduling have been made, including the change to offering more courses twice a week.

“[Many faculty] like to teach twice a week because of pedagogical reasons, or because it fits into their schedule [or] in terms of trying to get their research done,” said Jennifer Scanlon, John S. Osterweis professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies and senior vice president and dean for academic affairs.

During the 2020-21 academic year—when nearly all courses were taught online to students studying in many time zones––the College utilized a radically different time block schedule. Courses were scheduled with one morning, one afternoon and one evening meeting time, instead of the typical Monday-Wednesday-Friday and Tuesday-Thursday courses that meet at the same time each day. Such practices were implemented to provide students studying across the globe with opportunities to synchronously engage with their professors at mutually convenient times.

Although Duncan said that she does not foresee many aspects of the last year’s time block schedule continuing into the future, she hopes that the blocks reserved for Student Affairs programming and committee meetings, which were used in both semesters last year, are incorporated in future time block schedules. Creating open blocks for these events eliminated conflicts with classes, which had previously limited attendance.

She also noted that designating time blocks during the fall semester for first-year writing seminars—another practice first used during the pandemic—has been continued even as the time block schedule returned mostly to its pre-pandemic form. Starting this fall, the only courses scheduled in some specific time blocks are first-year writing seminars and upper-level courses, the prerequisites for which first-years will not have fulfilled, a trend which will continue in the future.

The benefits of this practice are two-fold: it allows first year students to choose their first-year writing seminar with little fear of conflict with other courses they may want to take, and, should they not get into their chosen writing seminar during the first round of registration, they can choose from many other options that meet at the same time.

Though the College will undoubtedly continue to make changes to its class schedule to accommodate students’ needs in the future, Scanlon said the College has no intention of offering extra-course credit for lab classes—a desire some students have expressed given the additional in-person hours required for these classes.

“There’s a tradition at Bowdoin as there is at many of our peer schools, where students take four classes a semester … and each class they take is worth one credit,” Scanlon said. “[Each class is] supposed to have a certain number of hours. In lab classes, we consider that those hours include the lab—in other classes, it includes work outside [of scheduled class time].”

With regard to possible future changes to the time blocks, Duncan said, “we’re always looking at it.”

Editor’s note, 12/3/21, 10:24 a.m.: A previous version of this article misattributed the final quote. It has been edited to properly attribute the quote to Duncan.


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