Reading Courses: A Guide

As course selection begins, you might find yourself searching endlessly through the Course Offerings webpage, trying to craft the perfect schedule for next semester. You’re probably weighing a number of different factors— the professor, the class topic, the reading list, the different requirements it fulfills— and trying to balance these in the best way possible.There is another possibility here, which you can’t find in the course offerings: reading courses. Not advertised on department websites or listed with course offerings, reading courses are some of Princeton’s hidden academic gems. The University defines a reading course as a specially designed course not normally offered as part of the curriculum that is arranged between a student and a faculty member. These courses count for academic credit, and focus on a topic of the student’s choosing. If you’ve ever dreamed about designing your own course, this is your opportunity.

Students walk across McCosh Courtyard at Princeton University.

McCosh Courtyard in November

The logistics of setting up a reading course are not too difficult. First, you must discuss the topic with a professor and secure the professor’s approval for the course. After designing the course together, you can submit your Reading Course Application with information about the course content, schedule of assignments, grading scheme, meeting time, and professor signatures, in the Reading Course Proposal Portal. As a side note, many reading courses are one-on-one with the professor, but you can include as many students in your course plan as you see fit. While the emphasis on reading and discussion is often more conducive to humanities topics rather than, say, lab-based sciences, any field of study is on the table. The world is your oyster. In order to satisfy university regulations, the course must meet for at least 2.5 hours per week, and must include at least two written assignments. The Proposal Portal will notify a number of individuals, including your Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS), for approval. The approval process usually takes a few weeks, and once all the appropriate individuals have given their approval, the course will appear in TigerHub with a special code, and you’ll be good to go. Students can take a maximum of three reading courses for credit during their time at Princeton. 

Reading courses provide students with a number of intellectual benefits. The small, often one-on-one environment allows the student to receive plenty of individually-focused advice from the professor. I have taken one reading course, which focused on an 11th-century Arabic translation of the Psalms. After discussing the possibility with my professor, I filled out the paperwork and got university approval. Meeting once a week with my professor and one other student, we read these psalms in great detail, focusing on the ways that the translator, Abdallah ibn al-Fadl, chose to render the Psalms of the Greek Septuagint into Christian Middle Arabic. In addition, we also looked at the impact which the psalms have had on Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims throughout history. The class was a wonderful opportunity for me to dive deep into the history of Arabic-speaking Christians and Christian-Muslim relations.

The flexibility in both designing and taking the course allows each student to work at the pace most conducive to their intellectual growth. These courses are also very conducive to in-depth, independent research. Your final paper for the class can approach JP- and thesis-level quality. But, unlike with many JPs and theses, the reading and discussion elements of the class ensure well-rounded knowledge and an evenly-paced semester. Reading courses are great opportunities to work closely with a professor on a topic of shared interest. In addition, they can also fulfill departmental and certificate requirements– my Arabic Psalms class covered requirements for my Near Eastern Studies concentration, and for my certificates in Medieval Studies, Hellenic Studies, and Arabic. The niche focus that you can bring to the class also allows you to do research on topics that nobody may have ever seriously studied before, while balancing this research with a structured, classroom setting. 

If any of these features appeal to you, you should think about proposing a reading course. Think about a subject that interests you and a professor who might be able and willing to supervise the class. Email the professor and set up a time to talk further. If you like independent research, but also crave the structure of a standard class, a reading course might be the thing for you. Be sure to consider these hidden academic gems.

Shane Patrick, Humanities Correspondent