I believe I was sitting in COMM 409, News Media Ethics, and contemplating the irony of a Media Ethics course sharing the number of wins that Joe Paterno had when the idea for this crossed my mind.
The courses at Penn State seem to be numbered pretty randomly, right? Take, for instance, COMM courses 461-463, Magazine Writing, Feature Writing and Newspaper Design. What is it about Feature Writing that makes it one number higher than Magazine Writing? Newspaper Design must be really special if it’s two whole numbers higher, right? But all three of these courses can be used to fulfill the same requirement in the journalism major, they should be the same difficulty, right? Except we all know the difficulty and intensiveness of the course depends greatly on the professor, so what DO the numbers of courses indicate?
So, I looked it up. The university bulletin does a good job of explaining the basic stuff. Obviously, 100-levels are less intensive than 400-levels, which are generally reserved for upperclassmen within the major with a few exceptions.
The next digit also has a purpose. According to Brent Yarnal, chair of the faculty senate and geography professor, the second digits are up to the individual programs. In the geography program, for instance, courses about physical geography get x10s, human geography get x20s, nature-society get x30s and geographic information science get x60s, 70s and 80s.
Makes sense. But the last digit is decided based on a less formal system. Daniel Hagen, the director of the faculty senate and an animal science professor, e-mailed that there is no real system to the course numbers other than the progression up the ranks of the major according to the first digits. “Legacy” courses, which are often popular, long-standing courses with numbers that don’t adhere to any system, make the process more confusing. If a course is dropped from the curriculum, its number cannot be used again for five years to prevent confusion. But besides that, the last digit can be whatever the makers of the course want it to.
At this point, changing the numbers to a more logical and rigid system would only cause more confusion. I guess Newspaper Design isn’t that much cooler than Magazine Writing, after all.