Can't imagine teaching on semesters again

David Yamanishi, associate professor of politics


The advantages of the block plan are so many and so compelling that I can't imagine teaching on a semester or quarter plan again.

The block plan lets professors fit the class schedule to the needs of the class, rather than fit the needs of the class to the schedule. As a simple example, I start my Human Rights class with the film "Judgment at Nuremberg." On a traditional calendar, it would take almost two weeks worth of classes to watch the whole movie, during which my students (and possibly I) would forget why we were watching it. At Cornell, I can simply schedule a session long enough to watch it—or, if I'm feeling generous, with a break for lunch at the intermission.

As a more complicated example, even before starting at Cornell I thought it would be instructive to play the board game Diplomacy as a simulation in the basic international politics class. I now have groups of students play each country, and thus simulate the effects of various factors in the course of international relations. On a traditional calendar, I couldn't figure out how to do it. Even if I were blessed with a class an hour and 50 minutes long, we would only meet twice a week and we'd have to put everything else in the class on hold. Here at Cornell, we can have seminar meetings in the morning and do the simulation in the afternoons.

The community that the block plan makes of each class constantly amazes me. On any other calendar, students would be taking many classes at once and would naturally prioritize the work for the classes that matter most to them and have to divide their attention three or four ways. On the block plan, even in lower division classes, it's as if every class consists only of majors who have no other classes to dilute their attention.

Having only one class at a time has advantages off campus, too. Students can take internships or independent study blocks during the year. Political science students compete for summer internships in D.C., but at Cornell they can travel for one or two months during the academic year and have the opportunity to work on a special project rather than fight through the crowd of internship applicants during the industrial-scale summer internship process.

On a traditional plan, it's virtually impossible for a class to take a field trip. A class with 20 students might require the permission of up to 60 other instructors for a class to travel even for a day. Here at Cornell I've taken classes to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art without having to make any special arrangements at all, because the trip can easily fit between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. With the simple step of advance notice to the students, I will take my World War I-themed writing class on a day trip to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City later this year.

Share