In 1891 the University of Chicago's first president, William Rainey Harper, established the academic calendar based on the quarter system—a bold innovation not without its challenges. A more-intensive course schedule was thought to demand careful time-management skills as students hit the ground running, preparing for "midterms" as early as Week 3. While semester-based colleges herald the arrival of summer in May, Chicago's spring quarter encroaches upon the summer solstice, meaning students must balance summer internship and job opportunities while preparing for finals.
Even so, Chicago students largely thrive on this rhythmic rigor and recognize its advantages, including access to a richer variety of courses and greater flexibility for international experiences. At first glance, it may seem incongruous that students on a quarter calendar have increased access to study abroad, since the majority of overseas universities also operate on a semester schedule. This challenge became an opportunity for our faculty to reconceptualize study abroad, by creating and teaching programs in an array of international cities.
Unusually for an institution of our profile, 40 percent of undergraduates, representing the full range of majors in the College, study abroad during the academic year. They are more likely to do so because they can study with the faculty who drew them to Chicago in the first place, and meet general-education and major requirements while abroad in a shorter time frame. The faculty are sharing places where they have lived and studied as engaged nonresidents, modeling deep cultural involvement in cities they love.
Chicago's signature Civilization Studies Abroad programs introduce students to great cities with faculty who tailor each year's program to take advantage of current exhibits, cultural events, local scholars, and their own research. Each program occupies a full 10-week academic quarter and includes an intensive, three-course sequence. (Students take a local language with a native instructor for the entire quarter, and three intensive courses one after the other, with Chicago professors, that meet the College's general-education requirement in civilization studies.)
Faculty have embraced this quarter-based model as a way to share their scholarship with students overseas and to continue their own fieldwork. Because courses are taught in intensive, three-week sequences, faculty are able to travel in rotation and maintain their responsibilities on campus with minimal interruption. Thomas Pavel, professor in Romance languages and literatures, has said that teaching "European Civilizations" in Vienna was the best teaching experience of his life, noting an unprecedented level of closeness with his students.
Interestingly, Harper's calendar innovation has freed our faculty to be similarly innovative with their students and their scholarship overseas. We have managed to leverage the quarter schedule to blend the academic rigor and spirit of intellectual curiosity that is central to the College curriculum with the university's wide-reaching international mission.