Gustavus J-Term Highlights Experience and ExperimentationHow students and faculty stretch their academic boundaries between semesters
Posted on January 20th, 2023 by

Students in the Identity, Resistance and Liberation in Cambodia and Vietnam J-Term class receive a lesson in cultural cuisine.

With each new January comes the opportunity for the Gustavus community to depart from the standard semester class structures and calendar and take the month to try something different. J-Term is when students and faculty spend the month traveling and studying off campus, exploring potential career paths, or diving deeply into academic subjects in ways they can’t always do the rest of the year.

J-Term is anything but an academic “breather.” For the past several years, J-Term offerings have counted toward majors and general education credits, and some of them satisfy requirements of the College’s Challenge Curriculum. “For some time, [J-Term courses] were their own category of class that couldn’t count for majors or general ed. The classes ranged very widely and were supposed to be about topics that could really only be done in a more intensive way,” says Sarah Ruble, associate provost and dean of Academic Programs and Accreditation, and a professor of Religion. “Now they can be courses that we also teach in fall or spring, but differently, by changing the pedagogy or the assignments to reflect the more intensive one-month schedule.” 

All Gustavus students must complete at least two J-Term offerings before graduation, and they often aren’t traditional classes. For example, among the many 2023 J-Term Study Away offerings:

  • The Choir and Wind Orchestra are doing concurrent two-week performance tours through France and Spain (the Choir is also performing in Italy), the first international music tours since before the COVID-19 pandemic
  • A group of Education majors is in Sint Maarten, Dutch West Indies for a school-based service-learning course
  • Nursing students are traveling to Tanzania to visit schools and medical facilities
  • Gusties are visiting Dharamshala, India for “Tibetans in Diaspora – People, Culture, and Religion”, a course in the capital of the Tibetan exile community that features rigorous academic study, cultural immersion, and contemplative practice
  • “Identity, Resistance and Liberation in Cambodia and Vietnam” is helping students explore the rise of national liberation movements in Southeast Asia and the emergence of sites of resistance to colonialism, capitalism, communism, and foreign occupation
  • Individual students are job-shadowing, a sort of “internship lite” that gives them a taste of future career possibilities

    Jack VandeBerg ’24 with students in Sin Maarten.

This January’s offerings on campus include such varied classes as the Black Athlete in America, Climate Change and Environmental Education for Kids, Exploring in 3D & 4D–Form Space and Technology-Based Media, and Chinese Cinema, among many others. J-Term classes are often experimental and experiential, in that they allow faculty to run them in different ways and enable students to learn the subject matter via alternative sources. The Black Athlete in America, for one, has a traditional structure when it’s a full-semester course but relies more heavily on video and audio materials during J-Term. “For the J-Term version I bring in a lot more of the athletes’ voices, mainly through documentaries or oral histories, so we’re watching the experience as well as reading about them, which the students love,” says Kate Aguilar, assistant professor in History. “In each three-hour class we’ll analyze and compare the visual or audio and written materials, which helps students engage with the subject in a very different way.”

Gustie students sit with a Tibetan monk at the J-Term class, Tibetans in Diaspora – People, Culture, and Religion.

First-year student Sam Kuseske ’26, says he chose the class because he’s a big sports fan, and because the course counts toward the Challenge Curriculum. “I didn’t really know all it entailed, but every day I learn something new about details that we didn’t know or talk about growing up,” he says, citing one example of how, after the Civil War, American sports were integrated for about 15 years during Reconstruction but were segregated after that as the Jim Crow era arose. “I had no idea that happened,” Kuseske says. 

In addition to completing two papers and a presentation for the class, students will write letters to the Minnesota Board of Education advocating for more American Black athletes’ history to be included in the state’s core K-12 curriculum. “The ultimate goal is to raise awareness around these issues,” Aguilar says. “Even if you don’t go into a career in sports management after graduation, you’ll probably be a consumer of sports in some way, and this helps you have conversations around the issues, from youth sports all the way up.”

Valerie Walker created her Climate Change and Environmental Education for Kids J-Term course as a response to some unfortunate awareness-raising her first-grader experienced. “He started having nightmares after he went to an environmental experience summer camp because one of his counselors told them the world is burning,” says Walker, the Lind Professor of Education. “This led to me thinking about how we can do this type of work without scaring young children, but also to keep preparing them to live in the world. So, the class started as being personal for me but led to an interesting academic idea.”

2023 J-Term Environmental Education students listen to a presentation at the Interpretive Center at the Arb.

This J-Term Walker is teaching 24 Gustavus students, and the class wait list had another 20 students on it. The class has about the same amount of content as a full-semester course, with 60 total hours of class time divided into four-hour sessions, but it includes immersive experiences such as playing a game that simulates climate solution collaborations and a half-day field trip to the Interpretive Center at the Arb. Among the final evaluation tasks for the students are identifying a curricular need—such as creating environmental education programs in urban or less affluent communities—and writing proposals for them, and going through a mock job interview process with Walker in fictional but realistic organizations where the students might one day want to work.

Gustavus remains one of a handful of small, private liberal arts colleges where the J-Term concept is used, and the College continues to tweak the model to provide the greatest possible benefits and outcomes for students and faculty. “J-Term allows faculty to experiment with things they’d love to be able to do in their semester-long classes, like field trips or class projects, that are harder to do when students are balancing multiple courses. They’ll get some seeds of ideas they can then take to their semester-long class,” Ruble says. “And students get to do the sort of deep dives and experiential learning that can really help them figure out which direction they want to go with their studies or careers.”


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


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  1. […] “Even if you don’t go into a career in sports management after graduation, you’ll probably be a consumer of sports in some way, and this helps you have conversations around the issues, from youth sports all the way up.News […]