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In 2009, Columbia professor Mark Taylor proposed in the New York Times doing away with existing college and university departments and majors in favor of an ever-shifting set of constellations organized around themes of current interest, such as “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life, and Water.” I objected that redoing the entire curriculum every seven years, as he proposed, wouldn’t make any practical sense. Among the reasons:

[I]f colleges redid their curricula every seven years or so – his suggested lifetime for the project-based constellations he favors – that would involve every seventh year putting entire new programs through the shared governance process, coming up with entirely new job descriptions, hiring committees, student learning outcomes, assessment mechanisms, articulation agreements, catalog copy, advisor training, and the rest. Who, exactly, would do all this in the absence of departments or permanent faculty goes unmentioned.

The thematic approach would also make inter-institutional movement much harder. “I need to hire someone to teach Intro to Sociology. Is a graduate of a program in “Body” or “Water” capable? How the hell do I know?” And the impact on graduate students hitting the market would be catastrophic. “Sorry, ‘water’ grad.  We’re into ‘money’ now. Your graduate work is so last year.” The entire edifice takes for granted the support structures it proposed to supplant.

Now, Jeff Selingo has come along with an argument similar to Taylor’s, though he has shortened the programmatic window to five years. The titles are parallel: Taylor’s “End the University as We Know It” resembles Selingo’s “It’s Time to End College Majors As We Know Them.”  His list of preferred themes even looks similar: “supplies of food, water, and energy; climate change; digital literacy; the future of work itself.”  Selingo frames his argument more around employability than inquiry, but the outlines are broadly similar. He clarified in a subsequent exchange on Twitter that where Taylor argued for the liquidation of academic departments, Selingo merely advocates for the decoupling of departments from academic majors.  That wasn’t obvious from his approving quotation of Michael Crow asking why every university needs a political science department or a chemistry department, but so be it.

Does Selingo’s variation on the theme fix it?

I’ll describe his version as “less bad.” It leaves some basic administrative structures intact, such as departments, that get key work done.  It’s downhill from there, though. It largely punts on questions of shared governance and who would decree the themes.  It doesn’t address the practical question of what to do with students admitted in the final years of a sunsetting theme.  It elides questions of graduate hiring entirely. Questions about the definition of a major go unresolved, which is striking for someone as attuned to financial aid as Selingo usually is.  (Financial aid won’t cover courses outside of a major.) Faculty churn would have to be substantial, given that nobody is an expert in everything, but it’s entirely unclear who would make those decisions, or on what basis. 

In a Twitter exchange, Selingo asked for student-centered objections, rather than faculty-centered ones.  Fair enough. It would make transfer of credits from one college to another virtually impossible. Advising would be a nightmare.  Simply tracking the catalog changes would be a herculean task, given makeovers every five years. And students who show up in the waning years of a theme would be in a sort of limbo.  If they change every five years, and you show up at the beginning of year five, what do you do?

The model could work tolerably well in a self-contained, well-funded, elite setting.  I’m picturing a tony SLAC, or maybe a well-endowed honors college of a large university.  But as a general model, it’s a non-starter. It assumes static full-time cohorts -- already otherworldly in a community college setting -- and constant full-time faculty turnover.  It assumes a central figure -- I’m picturing Rousseau’s “lawgiver,” but ymmv -- who decrees themes from one period to the next. It ignores transfer entirely, as well as the employment prospects of its own graduate students.  It doesn’t even offer an organizing principle for the departments that it retains.

Yes, the existing structures are flawed in many, many ways.  But they exist because they address some key problems. If you want to get beyond the existing structures -- a conversation I’m happy to have -- you need to find better ways to address those problems.  Yes, the credit hour is a flawed measure; regular readers may have seen me reference Baumol’s Cost Disease once or twice. But the credit hour is a kind of currency, a medium of intercollegiate exchange.  If you want to replace it, you need to replace it _with_ something. If my community college decides to focus on “work” for this five years, but the local university decides instead to focus on “water,” what happens to our grads who try to transfer?  How would their work even be counted?

In trying to improve student success, community colleges have focused on ‘guided pathways’ to simplify students’ planning.  Upending curricula every five years would go in the opposite direction, leading to no end of confusion and frustration. And that’s without even counting the effects of cleaning house on full-time faculty every five (or seven) years.  

Project-based learning has a lot to be said for it.  But it has to scale, and it has to work for students who move from place to place.  Otherwise, it will quickly become yet another boutique program for students at well-funded places who can afford to be full-time.  That’s a problem we solved a long time ago.


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