The Ideal Course Description

Compiled by Nancy Ashmore, St. Olaf Academic Catalog Editor, 9/25/06

Reviewed and slightly edited by Mary Cisar, Registrar,

Reviewed by CEPC, March 7, 2007

Course descriptions should reflect the standards of the college, i.e., they should be grammatical, free of misspellings, accurate, complete, and written with style whenever possible. What does this entail? Among other things, descriptions require:

  • Titles that contain course number, name, credit information (when other than 1.0 credit), and off-campus or abroad status (when applicable)
  • Full sentences written in third person plural (use “students” and “their,” rather than “we” and “our”)
  • Sentences written in present tense and in active voice wherever possible
  • Summaries that give students a good idea of the material to be covered, but are not constrictively specific
  • “Nuts and bolts” notes about credit grading (P/N only), prerequisites and/or recommended precursor courses, additional fees, and, finally, times of year the course is offered [1]
  • A style that is engaging and suggestive of the department’s personality and approach to pedagogy

A note about word count: Course descriptions should be 75 words long, not counting the “nuts and bolts” information at the end.

And some thoughts on what should probably NOT be in course description: I’d urge faculty to avoid lists of specifics unless a course always covers certain topics or authors.  Being somewhat generic here means the course description doesn’t have to updated every time the prof decides to drop one of the authors in favor of an emerging talent or breaking development in the field.

The following descriptions exemplify the above principles:


231 Intermediate Greek

Third-semester Greek students read selections from Plato’s dialogues (Apology, Crito, Phaedo) in uncut, original versions, reviewing basic vocabulary, grammar, and syntax while translating the Greek texts. The class discusses the life and death of Socrates and the significance of the dialogues as works of literature. Prerequisite: Greek 112 or equivalent. Offered annually.

252 Vergil and Latin Epic

Lord Tennyson called Vergil the “wielder of the stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man.” Students encounter that stately measure when they translate selections from Vergil’s three major poems (Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid). They also engage in spirited discussion of Homer’s influence on Vergil and of Vergil’s influence on the literature, art, and music of Western civilization. Prerequisite: Latin 231 or equivalent. Offered in alternate years.


262 Intermediate Microeconomic Theory

Microeconomics is the study of the resource allocation decisions by households, producers, and firms and the resources allocation process in various types of market structures. Students are trained in the use of economic models and optimizing techniques to address a variety of real-world problems, including case studies from business and public policy. Prerequisites: Calculus I and one of Economics 110-122, or permission of instructor. Offered each semester.

376 Labor Economics and Employment Relations

What do workers want from work? What do employers want from workers? Pressing policy issues exist for workers competing in the global economy. Unions, unemployment insurance, welfare, and the minimum wage enhance the prospects of many while leaving others even worse off. This course utilizes microeconomic theory, statistics, and institutional analysis to understand labor markets. Prerequisites: Economics 262 and Statistics 263 or Statistics 316, or permission of instructor. Offered annually.


379 Statistical Physics

How do macroscopic variables (e.g. energy, pressure) develop through the collision or interaction of microscopic objects? Why is the spread of disease in an orchard similar to a
piece of iron becoming magnetized? Students study classical and quantum gases, followed by magnets and phase transitions (Ising Model, percolation, renormalization), and employ both analytical and computer methods (Monte-Carlo sampling, simulations, molecular dynamics). Prerequisite: Physics 244.


260 History of Modern Political Thought

Machiavelli founded modern political philosophy by asking “How does the ruler acquire power?” This course explores how modern political thinkers answered this question by changing the grounds of authority from religious and philosophical foundations to rational ones. Texts include Machiavelli’s Prince and Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s Second Treatise, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and Nietzsche’s Use and Abuse of History.

311 Seminar in American Politics

This seminar introduces the core questions, concepts, and theories of the field of American politics. With topics varying from term to term, students read both “cutting edge” research and the classic articles of the field. The methodology employed in the research is a central topic. Students ask whether the methods were appropriate and helpful for answering the central questions of American politics. The course also includes a major research project. Prerequisites: Political Science 220, and one course in the subfield or permission of instructor.