The effects on the visible undergraduate curriculum of the hidden curriculum in graduate school

by Harry on November 26, 2017

At the APA blog Steven Cahn says:

The term “hidden curriculum” refers to the unstated attitudes that are often communicated to students as a by-product of school life…. [At graduate school]

[One] message is that faculty members are entitled to put their own interests ahead of those of their students. Consider how departments decide graduate course offerings. The procedure is for individual professors to announce the topics of their choice; then that conglomeration becomes the curriculum. The list may be unbalanced or of little use to those preparing for their careers, but such concerns are apt to be viewed as irrelevant. The focus is not on meeting students’ needs but on satisfying faculty desires.

Similarly, in a course ostensibly devoted to a survey of a major field of philosophy, the instructor may decide to distribute chapters of the instructor’s own forthcoming book and ask students to help edit the manuscript. Whether this procedure is the best way to promote understanding of the fundamentals of the announced field is not even an issue.

I think he exaggerates a little: certainly in my department more thought than that is given than he describes to graduate course offerings. But I don’t think he exaggerates a great deal. A piece of evidence: I was struck, in my several years on my university’s curriculum committee (which vets all new course proposals and all proposed course deletions in the university—at least several hundred a year of the former, and a handful of the latter) how often the rationale for proposed undergraduate courses in the humanities and (to a lesser extent) social sciences was something like this:

“We have just hired X whose [very narrow]specialty is Y, and s/he wants to teach a course on it”

In many cases no reference at all was made to the needs of the undergraduate students, except for a perfunctory explanation of where it would fit in the curriculum of the major. We sent a message that this was an unappealing rationale for a new course.[1] Of course, after we sent that message, we still got proposals that, reading between the lines, probably had the same hidden rationale, but at least someone had to give some thought about why the course might benefit students.

I didn’t start looking carefully until I’d encountered this a few times, but after I started noticing it, I never once saw a proposal of with this character from any of the professional/pre-professional schools.

[1] Of course, if you have hired someone who works on Victorian literature, they’ll probably teach Victorian literature. And of course there could be a case for having a new course on a medieval philosopher nobody has ever heard of, and that case would probably depend on having a faculty member with expertise on that obscure philosopher, who wants to teach it. The point is that I want to hear why its in the students’ interest for them to do so. Or at least have someone think about it…

{ 26 comments }

1

Luis 11.26.17 at 11:59 pm

I’ve certainly taken and/or guest-lectured at such classes at professional schools; they aren’t the exclusive province of the liberal arts. That said, they were layered on top of a structured curriculum. In that light I agree that they seem much less objectionable.

2

Alan White 11.27.17 at 12:48 am

Very good post Harry, and timely from my prospective. I’d read Cahn’s post as well, and thought it made several salient points. I’m working on a paper right now (for the Center for Ethics and Education) arguing that introduction to philosophy is most frequently taught in ways that are steeped in curricular traditions that do not serve most students because they are most always historical or topical surveys. Cahn himself has contributed to this tradition with multiple editions of a survey text. But these treatments of philosophy as a form of sampling at best pique interest in thinking about difficult problems, but since most students never take another philosophy course, that interest fades along with the superficial understanding that accompany survey-sampling. Further, most students who take intro are at “open-access” institutions and who frequently lack polished cognitive skills and appreciation of what the history of ideas even means. What is needed is a new approach to teaching philosophy as a prolonged engagement of philosophical problems as they relate to one another in understanding a particular issue–what I have called “the single-topic approach” to intro. We need to engage students in striving to achieve what I call “critical patience” in assembling lots of ideas in constructing a big-picture grasp of a difficult problem. This would essentially be a course that tries to engage students in a semester-long exercise in experiencing what constitutes real expertise. I’ve developed and taught such a course for over 30 years, and if first-person anecdotal evidence means anything (stats say no of course), then it is a viable and perhaps preferable alternative for surveys–especially at open-access institutions like mine (though recently pronounced ironically brain-dead by the University of Wisconsin System, to be absorbed into the 4-year Borg).

3

Harminder 11.27.17 at 1:07 am

One way to avoid this would be to follow the New Zealand example, where all degree programmes have to be approved by a committee made up of representatives from all NZ universities, and all specific courses (called “papers” in NZ) have to be approved by a faculty committee made up of representatives from across the faculty. This ensures that situations like the one above (““We have just hired X whose [very narrow]specialty is Y, and s/he wants to teach a course on it””) do not occur often.

4

Donald A. Coffin 11.27.17 at 1:23 am

This is a comment about the undergraduate curriculum part of Harry’s post, from the perspective of someone who taught (for 25 years) at an institution with few graduate programs. For over half the time I was there, I was on the campus curriculum committee. The process for proposing a new course was that the department or program developed a new course proposal, frequently because an existing or new faculty member wanted to teach it. (An example, a member of the history department, whose specialty was 19th century US political history, decided, in the mid-1990s, that developments in the world made teaching a course–or, as it developed over time, two–on middle-eastern history would be a good idea. He devoted two summers to acquiring some expertise before developing the course proposal.). That proposal would be considered by the college (or school) curriculum committee (A&S, Business, Nursing…). If approved at that level, it was considered by the campus curriculum committee, which could approve, reject, or suggest that further justification was needed.

We had, as it happens, one department that had, over a period of almost a decade, an immense amount of turnover (because of 3 retirements and 5 or 6 other faculty members leaving for better positions). Every new faculty member, after a year or so, would propose a new course–or courses. After a few years, that department had several dozen courses on its lists that were either never offered (the faculty member whose course it was had left) or offered very infrequently (specialized upper division courses couldn’t be offer very often, given the department’s other needs). The bloated course list in the catalog confused students–all those courses that were never offered–and irritated the campus curriculum committee (it was constantly reviewing 2-3 new course proposals from that department).

My point is that the problem probably takes on a different character at schools like mine, but is or at least can be (in my opinion) a serious pain in the ass.

5

Joseph Brenner 11.27.17 at 7:25 am

When I was an undergraduate at SUNY Stony Brook (since rebranded as just “Stony Brook”, I understand) circa 1980, I was surprised to see how much latitude the teaching assistants had in the curriculum, at least in the Philosophy Department. Different sections of what was nominally the same introductory level class would have entirely different reading lists. I remember having to juggle my schedule to get away from the fellow who was assigning very little besides Marx.

6

Neville Morley 11.27.17 at 9:02 am

Are we just talking about philosophy, or can anyone join in? If the latter, I’d like to offer a partial defence of the ‘we’ve just appointed X who specialises in Y and wants to teach a course in it” approach. At least in History and Classical Studies, and especially at more advanced levels, it’s entirely possible to deliver core skills and programme outcomes through a variety of different material – for example, Politics and Culture under Nero and Ecology and History of the Ancient Mediterranean. What determines the choice of material? Not that one topic is more central or essential than the other, but that a key part of such courses is being taught by a specialist in the topic, experiencing the cutting edge of the subject etc. Hence, better to create new modules when departmental research focus changes than force people to teach advanced-level stuff in areas beyond their expertise. Yes, you need to be sensible and pay attention to whole curriculum – if department has a research focus on ecological history, you don’t actually want seven modules on variations of that and none on political history – but there is a clear case for regularly introducing new modules and culling old ones.

My experience is that this is getting harder in the UK, however, as university teaching committees and quality assurance people (1) try to minimise paperwork and (2) seem to base processes on a science model, where creating a new module implies emergence of a whole new research field, hence need for extensive review process etc., rather that Humanities model of taking basic module format and justice plugging some new content into it.

7

Neville Morley 11.27.17 at 10:16 am

Bloody autocorrect. “…rather than Humanities model of taking basic module format and just plugging some new content into it.”

8

Doug T 11.27.17 at 11:57 am

In my experience (in physics rather than philosophy, and now 20 years out of date), the specialty courses as described in the post were advanced undergrad or graduate level classes. And rather than being taught by new hires, those classes were generally taught by the most senior professors who had the pull to write their own course description and get out of teaching the old, boring, introductory stuff.

As long as the department offers the basic core curriculum, I think it’s perfectly OK to have a bit of a grab bag of topics in those advanced classes. Assuming the faculty hired are a decent cross section of the field, the classes focusing on their research will similarly hit most areas a student might be interested in.

It’s only a problem if those topics either replace the basics or, even worse, infiltrate the standard class sequence. I had two classes where the second occurred, one third year undergrad and one a first term grad class. In both cases, the professor compressed or cut down the main course topic and spent a third or more of the class teaching their hobby horse research topic. In the undergrad case I never ended up really learning the material, and the grad class we all had to teach ourselves the material later, since it was a major part of our qualifying exams.

9

Matt 11.27.17 at 1:10 pm

I think I pretty much agree with Neville Morley here that, within reason, this is a non-problem. On the other hand, the system described by Harminder is very much like that in (at least some universities in) Australia, which is bad. It leads to people doing worse work than they could, for no good reasons other that it is very difficult to change, due to bureaucratic slog. It is a tremendous amount of work to offer a new course or change one, even if it would be a good idea. The committees rarely have any special knowledge about whether it would be a good idea. (They typically are good examples of the saying about committees, “Sometimes, all of us are dumber than any of us”.) While there are surely bad cases and abuse here, it seems to me to be a situation where most cures will be worse than the disease.

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Andre Mayer 11.27.17 at 1:22 pm

To Neville Morley’s point – courses present not only information, but also “methods,” “modes of thought,” etc., and this may be (best?) done by seeing the scholar in action. The most interesting courses I took as an undergraduate in History were those in which the professor offered insight into the specific issues with which he (well, it was a long time ago) was grappling.

11

sanbikinoraion 11.27.17 at 1:27 pm

We had our final module of a 4-year CompSci course annulled precisely because the professor had decided that they would teach the manuscript of their unfinished book and set an assessment based on his dodgy idea – an assessment which had something like 20 changes to the brief and mark scheme during the week that it was in progress.

There is something to be said, indeed, for not allowing professors to “teach” their own content without any critical oversight.

12

Jon Weinberg 11.27.17 at 3:48 pm

I teach in a professional school (law) at a US public university, and certainly it’s the norm here that new courses must be justified from a student-learning perspective. But there’s still a really large band of courses and potential courses that — while justifiable from a student-learning perspective — aren’t central to the curriculum and would not be offered except for a faculty member’s interest. We figure that every faculty member gets one of those.

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Paul J Reber 11.27.17 at 6:38 pm

As a professor in Psychology at a private US university, I can confirm that this is exactly how we organize both the graduate and undergraduate curriculum. However, I do not think it is actually much of a problem.

Framing the issue as ‘putting the faculty interests ahead of the students’ interests’ misses two important points. First, that anybody has a clear idea what the students’ best interests are with respect to curriculum and second, that the interests of students/faculty aren’t reasonably aligned.

I believe it is generally understood that a liberal arts education is primarily valuable in terms of teaching skills: critical thinking, reading, writing, analysis (mathematical and otherwise), presentation. Most of the specific facts learned are probably not all that valuable after graduation. I teach cognitive neuroscience, the brain, functional neuroanatomy and I doubt any of the content really comes up much for the students later on in any important way. But I think (hope) that the students come out of the class better at a range of thinking skills in addition to learning a few brain facts that they find interesting.

The key point is that although the students might graduate and go work at a bank, we aren’t trying to teach bank things. We are trying to make them generally smart and then the bank will teach them bank things. Except in the rare case that a student goes on to be a professor someday, liberal arts education isn’t really vocational.

As a consequence, rather than worry about the specific factual content of the course, I think it’s important to make it interesting. That ought to engage the students more deeply and lead to good building of those the general thinking skills. In my experience, a really smart person who is passionate about their research is almost always really interesting to talk to and content that might seem dry isn’t.

Our department has a small set of core foundational courses (called and taught as ‘service’ courses) aimed to prepare students for the upper-level classes. At the upper level, we want the faculty generally teaching what they really care about with a little bit of adjusting to what the students are interested in taking. In theory, that should be the most interesting for both the faculty and the students, leading to the greatest happiness for all.

Professional schools with a specific set of facts as well as skills to be acquired run differently. For example, our clinical psychology graduate program is more carefully structured. In contrast, the rest of the graduate Ph.D. program here is even less structured since the core skills to be acquired are research-focused (done in the lab) and classes mainly serve to get the graduate students to think about something other than their main research area a few hours a week.

14

Steve 11.27.17 at 8:08 pm

“In many cases no reference at all was made to the needs of the undergraduate students”—do you mean the needs of the undergraduates who are majors in the course instructor-to-be’s department? Or the needs of the undergraduate students, regardless of major, who would satisfy the stipulated prerequisites for admission to the course? There are always students st my university who are looking (often outside their major and minor fields) for interesting upper-level electives they can use to satisfy graduation requirements, and the proposers of new courses (and the members of the committees you describe) often aren’t in a position to know about such students. Similarly, there always seem to be students in interdisciplinary and design-your-own-degree programs for whom what might seem like a course in a very narrow subfield unexpectedly turns out to be just the thing that pulls together different parts of their degree plan in ways neither student nor advisor nor the designer of the new course could anticipate. Since tree-killing paper copies of undergraduate course catalogs are a thing of the past, and since a simple “contact the department if you wish to learn, about specific courses described here, how likely it is that they will be offered during your undergraduate career” statement is easy to add to course lists, I have trouble seeing any problem with allowing courses so long as whatever is merely essential for majors is also offered regularly.

15

Tom West 11.28.17 at 1:16 am

In both cases, the professor compressed or cut down the main course topic and spent a third or more of the class teaching their hobby horse research topic.

Well, I have to admit that as an undergrad (albeit in hard sciences), the three courses where the professors spent much of the course on their area of interest rather than the nominal curriculum were (at least for 2 out of the 3 courses) the most fun and memorable of my university experience.

16

ph 11.28.17 at 2:55 am

From the Cahn piece. “These days signs around the country tell us that if we see something, we should say something. Graduate students should be advised to follow an analogous rule: If you don’t understand something, say something.”

First, I suggest my students ignore signs, or least determine the utility and the authority of the demand – cross now, or stop – still means looking both ways before moving. The second part makes some sense, but say ‘something’ isn’t the same as say ‘anything.’ So, say what exactly? Before attending to that question, my own experience with the hidden curriculum for undergrads/grads/new hires goes like this:

How much money can you generate for the department?
How will your research add to the ranking of the department?
How will your research, reputation, and teaching increase the department’s ability to attract greater revenue (students)?
Can you stomach unlimited amounts of administrative swill more or less mutely?

You are here to enhance the reputation of the department.
You are here to perform any and all departmental tasks including puffing all egos you encounter.
Your own needs and concerns are of little or no interest to anyone.
You are here to generate funding for the department.
You may be asked to edit faculty publications.
Dissent on any substantive issue is grounds for expulsion.

So, given that grades matter rather a lot regarding the above, it’s one thing for an emeritus professor at the end of his career to insist ignorance and confusion announce itself publicly, or semi-publicly, it’s entirely another for an aspiring student, or even a new hire, to put the practice into action.

The comments here seem very helpful. Situations vary. The good news is that in my own experience is that most faculty do care about teaching and research and would very much like their students to succeed. If they can abide by the hidden rules, their chances of success are even better. I often can’t.

So, say something, what exactly? Start with a compliment, follow this with another compliment, then, add another compliment, follow this with another complement, ask about the professors favorite authors (extra points for swotting before hand), ensure you are familiar with your professors publication history, admit befuddlement confronted by so much genius, and remember to take good notes if/once the professor elects to respond to your question.

17

Ray Vinmad 11.28.17 at 5:45 am

It’s sometimes not clear to me what it means to serve curricular needs in the liberal arts when it comes to topics. There are important mainstream classes majors need to become conversant with the field. They also need to have the major requirements offered enough that they can graduate in a timely fashion.

It depends so much on how it’s done. The professor who teaches a fairly obscure field can do more to give students a leg up in their studies than the professor who teaches something very mainstream if that professor also uses the class to teach skills and open up informational avenues to much more than the specific topics he or she’s going over.

What is considered essential can differ somewhat from department to department even in the same field–and students with very different majors can all graduate from college with some clearcut understanding of how to teach themselves things if they are given good instruction.

As long as we don’t have a national curriculum that interweaves all the disciplines, and that is essential for future employment, it’s hard to see how the students are getting shortchanged. The Economics major could be missing a lot of information about world history, the History major might not know economics. They’d both better off if there were some standard pool of knowledge they shared but since there isn’t–I’m not sure how it makes sense to worry about particular gaps (if that is the worry about ‘needs.’)

It depends also on how you see the liberal arts. If its point is partly to provide a foundation for future learning, then the topics are fairly open. I’ve seen professors who taught some arcane material somehow get a following. I see their students as little busy bees in the major down the line, very grabbed by the particular little thread the eccentric enthusiast put them onto–and moving on from that thread with a lot of passion. I’ve seen professors teach the central gut classes and that doesn’t seem to happen. The mainstream in some hands isn’t a stepping stone, and some professors know how to make almost anything a stepping stone. Assuming that only a few students will be going on to graduate school, and there is enough coverage of basics in the department, it can pay off to let the enthusiast pass on his or her enthusiasms on a regular basis.

One problem is that certain of these enthusiasts are terrible teachers. I think that’s a different problem though.

18

Howard 11.28.17 at 7:25 pm

Some teachers would bring a fresh mind and enthusiasm to topics that lie outside their specialty. Good teachers are good teachers, at least some of the time, so I like your idea

19

Priest 11.30.17 at 1:00 am

At one end of the spectrum, though, you’ve got professors brought to an institution to teach their specialty. I had the benefit of being able to take a joint undergrad/graduate seminar on James Joyce my senior year, with Richard Ellmann presiding over the course. But I guess that’s not the type of hire Harry is talking about.

(I escaped with a gentleman’s C, I recall his relatively gentle comments “I find this paper confused and incoherent, but I appreciate your attempt to treat a difficult subject thoughtfully”, or words to that effect)

20

Wotton 11.30.17 at 5:00 am

Surely the correct balance is to have required core courses that are approved by faculty consensus as ‘what needs to be known’ and allow room for electives that are delivered at the discretion of the professor – who ought to be encouraged to teach in her specialty.

We often wring our hands and complain about kids these days who don’t know xyz fact that we take for granted ought to be known by all undergraduates. The solution we often reach for is to force them to take broad survey courses by which they will ingest all the knowledge that we wish them to have.

But I think the whole style of surveying topics is counter-productive. The thinking is “we’ll introduce these 10 major thinkers/ideas”, and that at least one of these will spark their interest to delve deeper. But the shallowness with which the topic must be surveyed works against producing any deep interest.

For example, summaries of the plot of Shakespearean plays are nothing compared to reading him line by line. I would rather undergraduates (or even graduates) study one single play for a whole semester and know it entire, while being unable to tell me the country in which something is rotten, than that they are vaguely familiar with all the plots while being unable to quote 10 lines or explain a pun. The person who takes a survey is more likely to leave with a deflated and uninterested view of Shakespeare, while one who studies a single play in depth, with joy and insight, will read many more over his lifetime.

We shouldn’t be so precious about the list of things we think they ‘ought to know’; we ought to care more about giving them the tools for a deep appreciation of the genre or field of study; eventually, they’ll find out all they ought to know by themselves.

21

Fake Dave 12.01.17 at 2:09 am

I think the other problem with niche/vanity courses is students often have no earthly idea what they’re getting into. My first semester after I transferred to a new school as a junior English Lit major, I chanced upon an upper division lit course titled “International Cyberpunk.” I was a strong reader and a lover of sci-fi, so I went for it. Too late, I found out that the (very prestigious) professor who taught it had a reputation teaching demanding but fascinating courses that used literature as a lens for engaging with continental philosophy.

Here I was, a green 19-year-old who’d never taken a philosophy course and expected a normal lit class to round out my full load, suddenly thrown into the deep end with a fourteen book reading list, a professor who devoted whole lectures to Nietsche and Foucault or the differences between ontology and “hauntology,” and a TA that didn’t understand the topic any better than I did. It was the most challenging, fascinating, and miserable class I have ever taken and in the end, I failed. Hard.

In retrospect, I didn’t have the skills or experience needed to engage with the material and even if I had, that class was a still a completely ridiculous choice for someone who’d never taken an upper division course before, but I had no way of knowing that from the course description and no one warned me. That F, in a course I picked myself and felt I should have loved haunted me for years and helped drive me away from a lit degree entirely. I appreciate the lesson in humility it taught me, but that’s still a lot of damage for one vague course description to do.

22

Ebenezer Scrooge 12.01.17 at 2:29 am

When I was an undergrad (physics, the late Paleolithic), the word was that you wanted your introductory math courses taught by academic engineers, not academic mathematicians. I’m talking about basic calculus, linear algebra, and maybe differential equations. OTOH, I never saw much self-indulgence in basic physics or chemistry courses, by which I mean the first three years of the undergrad curriculum. Of course, we were learning about impetus and phlogiston back then.

23

Neville Morley 12.01.17 at 8:17 am

Fake Dave’s experience really brings home to me some differences between the US and UK approaches, in a “grass not actually always greener” way. In the UK, academics often look longingly at the freedom of US professors to grade as they wish without external constraint, whereas we are moderated, checked, measured against set assessment criteria etc.; it’s often frustrating, but it means students do have a decent idea where they stand, and a protection against this sort of abuse. We also have much more focused, restrictive curricula, so an advanced and highly philosophical course like this one simply wouldn’t be open to students who had none of the background knowledge or skills to cope with it. In brief, the issue is much less about ‘Professor gets to teach his/her hobby horse’ than about *how* it then gets taught, and how far serious issues (like a high failure rate) would be seen as a problem with the professor rather than the students…

24

Tom H. 12.01.17 at 4:18 pm

I don’t know if it was because the discipline was computer science or because the teaching load was 3 courses per semester, but when I spent six years on the tenure track the teaching schedule was almost formulaic:
* one class at entry-level or for non-majors
* one (undergraduate) class in the core of the discipline
* one (upper division or graduate) class in the professor’s interest area

25

anon 12.02.17 at 12:06 pm

Isn’t this inevitable given the prevailing philosophy towards ‘truth’? To simplify: if Shakespeare is irrelevant and can be replaced by Maya Angelou, then isn’t Maya Angelou equally irrelevant and justifiably subject to being replaced by ‘New Professor’s specialty X’?

The entire modern argument is one of relativism. You’ve spent 40 years replacing dead white males with modern gay/minority/women/colonized/causedujour irrelevance. Now replacing modern gay/minority/women/colonized/causedujour irrelevance with some other causedujour irrelevance simply because an incoming professor can actually teach it compentently doesn’t seem like such a bad idea*.

That’s why I hope my kids stick to medicine or engineering.

anon

*Obviously, I’m being provocative. And obviously, most of you won’t agree with my political leanings. But I trust you can all see my point.

26

Chris "merian" W. 12.02.17 at 10:09 pm

Quite obviously “new faculty hire X wants to teach niche specialty Y” should never be a sufficient justification for a new course (and only barely a necessary one). Taking a step back, though, presumably when X was hired, their specialty was considered relevant to the larger field and in some way a good addition to the disciplinary make-up of the department, so it should be expected that in some shape or form, it would also be something that upper level undergraduates or graduate students could benefit from. Or maybe X was hired based on their methodological approach (the job announcement looked for a sea-going physical oceonographer, a critical race theorist, a Bayesian biostatistician or a generative grammarian) and their offer of what looks like a niche course (say, the north Atlantic thermohaline circulation, a group of African-American female union-organizing poets in 1950s Chicago, reproducibility problems in genomics for cancer research or the construction of noun classes in Hmong–Mien languages) is really to provide a substrate to teach the respective methodological approaches. This doesn’t look shocking or slap-dash to me. On the contrary the complete absence of such classes would be: it’s a university, so it should teach right up to the limit of known knowledge, innit? (Sometimes this is done without even creating new courses, hidden under titles like “advanced applied XYZ”)

Sure, the curriculum committee needs to have a clear idea of how exactly such courses fit into the undergrad or graduate curriculum, and presumably there is a central structure of core courses that such upper-level electives would articulate with.

Maybe my rather positive opinion of this comes from my experience at a small — 40-50 PhDs awarded each year — yet fairly research oriented and geographically relatively remote institution. (I just defended my own PhD, so that makes me an instant expert in higher education ::insert-irony-marker::.) My degree was in one of a cluster of programs in which my peers might be doing their degrees on closely related topics, but in a different discipline (e.g you might work on volcanoes to get the PhD or MS in geophysics, geology, atmospheric science, or environmental chemistry). For me, required coursework was structured around a relatively well-thought out (and recently revised) curriculum with two core courses everyone had to do, a small amount of freedom to pick 3-4 more courses depending on your concentration, and then a rather large amount of freedom to pick 1-2 electives as approved by your committee. Comprehensive exams were about whatever your committee considered important and did not necessarily re-hash these courses. In another program, they have 5 core courses for everyone and only 1 or 2 electives, and the comps have written exams about all the core courses. (I’m glad I wasn’t in this program, but clearly over-reliance on vanity courses isn’t the problem here.) Others were in-between. Also, a popular option is to get an interdisciplinary doctorate, where the course of study is determined by the committee, and there’s even a framework for a particular type of interdisciplinary program that combines topics from climate science or ecology with social studies (to wit, rural and indigenous communities).

Undergraduate electives should be more constrained than the graduate offerings, but that, too was solved by only offering some advanced courses “stacked” (with a course number for 4th year UG and one for graduate level). (The main issue was that if an UG really really want to take a non-stacked graduate course they have to plead with their study advisor and convince them how it makes sense, which doesn’t always turn out well.)

But maybe that problem does exist in very large highly selective research oriented institutions. I doubt, though, that it’s any less prevalent in some of the more business / professional courses – the main example that springs to mind is when temporarily disgraced French politicians (Alain Juppé…) had to leave politics for a while they went to Quebec business schools with a teaching appointment for a few years, until their eligibility was restored — and I very much doubt that was done for reasons of curriculum design.

Bottom line, I think the problem of coherence of curricula is entirely solvable and doesn’t require you to decline taking advantage of the perspective that a faculty member who’s an IPCC author can bring to a course, or of a recent volcanic eruption that offers the opportunity for a unique field school. If students have a problem with an overgrowing course catalog with too many electives that are infrequently offered (and maybe never at all any longer) that’s a problem of the presentation of information more than anything else. No one needs to have to slog through a list of every course ever offered, even if there’s a chance it might come back under this title in a few years.

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