Over the past few weeks, a petition has circulated asking that the University reinstate course offerings in Sanskrit. The petition identifies a present dearth in alternative language programming, noting the far broader range of options available at our peer institutions, and demanding that Princeton expand its own course offerings.

That a petition is required to draw the University’s attention to a lack of programming underscores a broader issue, namely, the present lack of a formal process to propose new and permanent courses at the University.

Currently, students who wish to study a topic beyond the purview of the University’s present course offerings may pursue one of two options — reading courses or student-initiated seminars. While these programs gesture in the right direction, their specific processes of proposal and their lack of full recognition prevent them from fully addressing student needs.

A reading course, as described by the Office of the Dean of the College, is “a specially designed course not normally offered as part of the curriculum that is arranged between a student and a faculty member.” These courses allow students to independently pursue a subject of interest under the guidance of a faculty member.

Unfortunately, a number of problems exist with their current implementation. First, awareness of these programs is sparse, and the University does little to promote these initiatives among student or faculty. Even if a course is proposed and approved, however, it does not enjoy the same benefits as does a regular departmental offering. Reading courses cannot be used to satisfy a distribution requirement, nor are they designated on the transcript with standard course levels, even if their content and workload is similar to a normal course offering in the department. Instead, they receive a special 090 course level, both downplaying their rigor and failing to provide an accurate indication of their depth and content.

Student-initiated seminars are similar to reading courses; they too, are intended to allow the study of a subject not presently offered at the University, albeit in a larger group context than offered by reading courses. Unfortunately, they similarly suffer a number of pitfalls, as they cannot fulfill distribution requirements and also require that the student initiator provide the University with at least 12 names of students who agree to enroll. This places the onus for finding interested students on the proposer, which discourages new course proposals and provides no mechanism for publicizing the possibility of a new course.

Further, by their very nature, both student-initiated seminars and reading courses are treated by the University as exclusively one-off cases, and do not presently have a mechanism to become permanent additions to a department’s offerings, even if they are successful.

This Board recommends that the University implement a formal web-based platform for student course proposals.

In so doing, it can look to the format of the enormously successful varieties of crowd-funding websites. Such a website would allow students to propose new courses, then allow their peers to indicate an interest in taking a course if offered. This alleviates the burden of individually finding 12 people who agree to enroll and allows the University to gauge student interest and respond accordingly.

Ultimately, this type of formal and crowd-sourced proposal system would ensure that the University’s courses enable students to engage in serious intellectual inquiry in all academic fields.

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