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Thursday, September 07, 2006

On the Notion of a Curricular Menu

I am glad to be a member, for the first time, of my school's Curriculum Committee this year.  I thought I would take the opportunity, therefore, to solicit advice about how to structure our system of required and elective classes.

Prawfs has dealt with this subject in the recent past somewhat indirectly, by asking whether one- or two-semester first-year courses are preferable, and whether it would be a good idea to require or encourage professors to develop a longer list of courses they are able to teach, so as to provide them and the students with more variety.  Comments to those posts raised some thoughtful and interesting ideas, but neither of those posts was addressed precisely to the issue that faces us.

We have a tremendous number of required credits: 66 of the 88 credits required for graduation are taken up with required courses.  In attempting to reduce this number, we have several options.

Most obviously, we could just make elective some of the courses that are currentlyrequired, and reduce the number of credit hours accorded to the classes that remain required.  Secured transactions is high on the list to be made elective because it has been removed from the Pennsylvania bar exam, but we are concerned that if students don't have to take certain other courses (business organizations, tax, sales, wills, criminal law & procedure), they will not do so, and their chances on the bar exam will suffer.

Accordingly, we are thinking of some alternatives.  The currently required curriculum could be required in the future only of students who underperform, i.e., those whom we fear have a substantial chance of failing the bar exam without faculty-imposed focus.  Have other schools tried this?  What has been the experience?

We could adopt a system of undergraduate-style majors, which would impose a different set of required courses for students who wish to specialize in an area of law.  Constitutional law majors, for example, would take advanced courses in that subject plus federal courts, administrative law, etc., while business "majors" would take transactional courses.  This ensures to some extent that all students take elective courses that challenge them, without forcing students to spend their entire three years in courses, only half of which draw their interest.

We could also impose a "core curriculum," or what might be thought of as a menu system, under which all students would take a minimum set of required courses and then in the last year and a half would have to take a certain number of courses from a set of challenging courses.  This would leave each student to specialize as he or she sees fit, but would ensure some amount of intellectual rigor.

I welcome thoughts about both these structural ideas and about which courses can safely be placed outside the list of required or core list.  What principles should we seek to apply when seeking to label a course as "required," "core," or "elective"?

Posted by Michael Dimino on September 7, 2006 at 01:57 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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