At my department’s semi-annual retreat, we had another round of discussion about Friday classes. There are good reasons to have them and good reasons to avoid them. Each reason reveals a different, and compelling interest, on the part of various constituencies. But there is no way to adjudicate them, because they stem from fundamentally different goals.
The administration at our university demands that we spread classes among all five weekdays. Some colleges and universities have made the opposite decision, accepting the undesirability of Friday classes, but not ours. Every semester as we plan the schedule, we confront anew the problem of Friday classes. Google it: There is a rich and diverse electronic conversation regarding this topic.
“If students have Friday morning classes,” administrators tell us, “students can’t get as drunk on Thursday night.”
This statement alone should send you off scratching your head for a while. Why are students getting so drunk? Would the prospect of classes the next morning in fact act as a deterrent? Is it the purpose of classes to promote sobriety? What is the relationship between academics and college life? But onward!
“We have only so many classrooms and we need to use them optimally, to avoid having to build more classrooms and buildings.” This economic argument does persuade me, at some basic business level. And nobody can argue that colleges are free of financial considerations—not even a university that boasts a huge endowment. But that is not all that they are, so other considerations also make sense.
Colleagues argue against Friday classes: “How can we travel, give talks, attend conferences, and do all the high-profile professional activities that the administration is insisting that we do in our scholarly lives?”
It is true that for retention, tenure, and promotion, at universities that emphasize research it is essential that faculty circulate among colleagues elsewhere, to learn and teach and network and further the growth of knowledge.
Faculty in positions of seniority may demand that they teach only Tuesdays and Thursdays. In that way, they have Friday through Monday to concentrate on their research and writing. That can be a long, luxurious stretch of days. And some productive faculty do indeed use the time that way. All of them? Unlikely.
Students “argue” with their feet against Friday classes. Friday classes are consistently the least-enrolled, the least-well attended, and the most-emailed-about: “I have to miss class next Friday because…..It’s my cousin’s wedding; I have a medical school interview; I have a track meet.” Students also like three-day weekends for all the non-class purposes that residential colleges advertise: activities, social life, athletics, arts.
One question that I would like to raise, that is rarely voiced in these parts, is: Is it preferable for pedagogical reasons to meet three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday), for shorter periods, than two times a week for longer periods? What are the benefits in terms of learning to more frequent meetings?
In my view, there are some subjects—perhaps more technical subjects, or those that are less familiar (such as foreign languages, science and math, or—in my experience—basic linguistic anthropology)—that are best addressed in small chunks. Students arrive, move their understanding along with great concentration, learn one hard thing, and then go process it. They return just two days later to do it again, keeping it fresh in their minds.
This is effective in terms of students mastering a certain type of material.
And for this reason, even though I also travel, and I also like to have long weekends without the pressure of having to keep myself thinking about classes, for more than a decade I have taught on Fridays one semester a year.
Maybe that makes me look like a wimp capitulating to demands from above, but I don’t do it for the administration’s reasons. I do it for students’ learning.