Attention Conservation Notice*: If you aren’t at UM, or someone who cares passionately about the intricacies of University scheduling policies, you might not care about this post.
The University of Michigan, like all Universities, must construct its own temporality. That’s a really fancy way of saying that Universities have to schedule things: classes, meetings, exams, vacations, semesters and so on. Michigan, like most of its peers, produces an “Academic Calendar” that translates the dominant calendar into one that fits the logic of the organization, producing “Academic Years”, “Semesters” and so on. Similarly, Michigan transforms the 24 hour day into time slots for courses.
As with most constructions, there is variation across sites. Michigan’s calendar is different from Michigan State’s, and so on. And as with most arguments about social construction, the goal here is to point out how Michigan’s system works, how it could work differently, and suggest that maybe it should (cf. Hacking 1999). Michigan’s temporal order (so to speak) has two especially notable features, one of which I absolutely love, and one of which is very frustrating.
First, Michigan uses a semester system. In itself, this is not remarkable. What is lovely is the names that Michigan attaches to each semester. The September-December semester is called “Fall.” The January-April semester is called “Winter.” This is an incredible piece of truth-in-advertising. The Fall semester wraps up in the middle of December, just as Winter is kicking into gear. At some places, the January-April term would be called “Spring.” This would be incredibly misleading in Michigan, which routinely snows and is dark and cold through March, and sometimes April. So, hooray for accurately named semesters.
Second, every school has to deal with the “passing time” problem. Students need a few minutes to move between courses scheduled back-to-back in different buildings. The two obvious solutions to this problem are to end classes slightly before the hour (or half-hour) or start them slightly after. Michigan uses the latter system; a 1pm class actually starts at 1:10pm. This practice of beginning class 10 minutes after the hour (or half hour) is known colloquially as “Michigan Time.”
The problem comes from the way Michigan time is materially or technologically represented inside the enrollment system and schedule of classes – or more accurately, how it isn’t represented. Instead of listing classes as starting at say 1:10pm or 1:40pm, the system lists these classes as starting at 1pm or 1:30pm. Since students and faculty all “know” that they really start 10 minutes later, this doesn’t create a big coordination problem around classes proper. It does however create a problem for other meeting times that are not courses. For example, a review session or exam scheduled in the evening may or may not start on the hour exactly. A professor’s office hours may or may not start on the dot. And so on. So here’s where the “and maybe it should be different” part comes in. If the schedule of classes unambiguously listed the start time of courses as 10 minutes after the hour (or half-hour), then “Michigan time” would not have an ambiguous carry-over into other activities that are related to, but distinct from, courses themselves. A professor who needed the 10 minutes to get to their office before office hours would simply list them as starting at 1:10pm instead of 1pm. If a meeting was supposed to start exactly on the hour, it would be listed as such without any confusion. The current system create ambiguity by requiring interpretation on the part of students and faculty about whether Michigan time “applies” to a given event.
*A concept shamelessly stolen from Cosma Shalizi.