It is common for degree programs to have a set of required courses, taken by all who seek the degree, as well as a set of elective courses, subject to the choice of a student. As a student of statistics, one of my fondest memories was taking a statistical sampling course (required for me) with a graduate student from the archeology department (an elective for her). She wanted to import statistical methods into site investigations to increase the likelihood of discovery. Her presence in the class enlarged the set of practical examples we all, as students, struggled to apply to the theories we were learning. She made the class better for everyone.
My memory returns to that as I learn in my student advisory committees about student desires to enrich their education with electives outside their major focus, outside the school of their program, or outside their program’s campus. Increasingly, students want to broaden their knowledge with courses far outside their field. They see connections between diverse fields that the standard curriculum does not reflect.
We are striving to increase knowledge production at Georgetown by supporting the interdisciplinary inquiry that faculty members wish to pursue. It is logical, I believe, to support similar desires on the part of our students, whether or not we have previously conceived of the value of combining knowledge domains.
The newest Intellectual Life Report of the faculty has urged a lowering of barriers for students to enroll in courses throughout the university. There are cultural, pedagogical, and logistical challenges that must be overcome to implement this recommendation.
Some faculty are worried about the burden of teaching students without prerequisite knowledge to succeed in a course. Certainly, we need to articulate the needed knowledge more clearly, to assure that students not taking the normal sequence of prior courses, are aware of what skills and knowledge are needed to succeed in the class.
Some school cultures breed strong identities for students inside the school, complicating the acceptance of those outside the school in their classes. We need effective ways to address those cultural weaknesses.
Schools vary greatly in their class sizes. The relative burden of adding one more student varies as a function of the class size. We probably need to have new conversations about class size differences across schools.
If a new section of an existing class must be developed because of demand external to the program, financial support is needed. This is another variant of the constant problem of calibrating the supply of talented instructors to the demand for given courses. We’ll need to address this.
Student formation may be harmed if they choose courses outside their field that add little to their cumulative knowledge. Widening the menu of elective courses probably requires more advising guidance from mentors.
All of the counterarguments for permitting more flexibility for students’ election of courses, I believe, can be addressed.
Careful structuring of academic practices to serve both our students and faculty can be achieved.