Courses of Instruction Faculty of Arts and Sciences 796 pp.; $10,500
IN LINGUISTICS 225, "Introduction to Hittite," the instructors presume "no previous knowledge of cuneiform" by their students. In Natural Sciences 134, "Technological Assessment," students will be expected, not surprisingly, "to prepare specific assessments." In Psychology and Social Relations 2480, "Personality Assessment," the requirements seem much the same. And French Cd, "French Oral Survival Course," is not what you think.
These insights come from "Courses of Instruction," commonly known as the Harvard course catalogue. The catalogue is a little like the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon--too much of a good thing. Last year's edition--the 1981-82 version will not be released until September 8--ran an imposing 796 pages, far more than even the most dedicated of scholars can digest in the days before they must select their courses. The catalogue actually shows Harvard at its best; bureaucratic frustrations, inaccessible professors, and cranky students are nowhere to be seen. Harvard can be the best place in the world to study, and the course catalogue shows why.
The book is divided into three parts. The first 14 pages of introduction begin to explain Harvard's arcane numbering system for its courses--it varies mysteriously from department to department--and is examination system. (Yes, folks, exams are after Christmas). The introduction is extremely valuable, though it doesn't point out the danger of scheduling your exams too closely together. The intro, however, is dull. Very.
Part two explains the Core Curriculum, Harvard's shiny new way of larnin' its undergraduates, and displays the carcass of General Education, the old-fashioned method. The Core offers courses if five "modes of inquiry:" Literature and Arts, Foreign Cultures, Historical Study, Social Analysis, Moral Reasoning and Science. These peculiar names were applied to the areas because, according to the Core's authors, they show the way specialists approach their fields of endeavor.
For all national acclaim heaped on the Core as the "revolutionary" new educational theory of the 1980s, Core courses seem all the world like the General Education courses, which were divided into Natural Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities. Some Core courses cover rather specific areas, like Lit and Arts B-54, "The Development of the String Quartet," and Foreign Cultures 24, "Turn-of-the-Century Austrian Culture. Some are very broad, like Science B-16, "History of the World and of Life," and Social Analysis 16, "War." The main effect of the Core, many students say, is that it shook up the Faculty and forced them to create some new courses; nothing wrong with that, but nothing earth-shaking either.
THE FINAL, and by far the largest, section of the book is the list of courses, divided by department. Many of the courses have lengthy descriptions written by the professors who teach them. Students rarely place much value on them, tending to rely more on the Confidential Guide, the CUE Guide, and most of all, word of mouth. The catalogue descriptions have a peculiar, stilted style that becomes almost hilarious in its repetitive affectation. Phrases like "explores the varied meanings and manifestations of..." and "a discussion of the emerging concepts, ideals, styles and genres and functions..." and "examines some of the major works of..." grow ever more meaningless as decision time grows near.
Perhaps as a public service, the authors of the catalogue should offer the courses' nicknames as well as their real names to aid students with their selections. The nicknames not only describe the courses in more vivid and evocative terms, but they often also warn a student of the course's difficulty, or lack thereof. Lit and Arts C-14, "The Concept of the Hero in Hellenic Civilization," is lifeless compared to "Heros for Zeros;" "Abnormal Psychology" much less enticing than "Nuts and Sluts." Or Folklore and Mythology 107, "Literature of the Fantastic" vs. "FM107: Easy Listening." "Technology, War and Peace," and "Bombs." "American Architecture Since the Civil War" or "Bricks for Dicks."
The unfortunate class of '85 will miss out on the granddaddy of all Harvard guts (easy courses, that is). There will, alas, be no offering from Professor John H. ("Commodore") Parry, whose courses on oceanic exploration drew raves for decades. But with Parry's retirement last year, "Boats" is no more.