Writing recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Selingo proposes we “end college majors as we know them.”
Before we think the proposal is too radical, readers should know that heavy emphasis is placed on the “as we know them,” part of the equation, rather than the “end them” aspect.
There are lot of things I have to say in response, one of them being a mini-essay in that footnote 1 down below. We should also note the logistical hurdles and go read Matt Reed’s thorough and expert discussion on that front.
Those things aside, I am sympathetic to the idea that we could do better when it comes to helping students have the kinds of experiences and build the sort of knowledge which is both relevant to them during their educations, and a foundation for what will come after. Selingo suggests that majors could instead be “clusters of study designed around the knottiest problems facing the world – supplies of food, water, and energy, climate change; digital literacy; the future of work itself.”
That sounds mostly agreeable to me. I’m seeing courses in history, environmental studies, chemistry, biology, political science, sociology, anthropology, economics, physics, and even some others mixed up in those clusters. It looks like a nice, broad general education, and I’m sure we can figure out some angle from which to give the student an appropriate level of depth.
On the other hand, what happens when the problems change? Do we need to reconfigure our schools and institutes every seven to ten years to meet the demands on the horizon?
Do we really need that kind of upheaval to achieve Selingo’s goals?
Selingo (who works as a special advisor to Arizona State University President Michael Crow) approvingly cites Crow who questions why every university has to have the “same” chemistry and political science, and history departments and instead advocates “offering students various pathways for learning while retaining the grounding knowledge” suggesting this is a preferable model to meet today’s student needs.
Thing is, the idea that every institution’s chemistry, history, political science, etc…departments are the same is, well, not true. Sure, there’s lots of surface features that look similar from the outside, but when you drill down to the course level, the student/instructor learning interface, you will find many differences at many places. Even within the same course at the same institution, such as first-year writing, where many sections are offered simultaneously, you will see significant differences section to section.
Is ASU’s School for Innovation in Society a truly innovative entity which allows for enhanced learning, or is it a rebranding of already existing curriculum and courses? Example careers for those graduating from the School for Innovation in Society include: “administrative service managers,” “city and regional planning aids,” “construction managers,” “investment fund managers,” “legislators,” and “historians,” all honorable paths, but also careers that might also be fits for degrees like civil engineering, urban studies, business administration, finance, history, and in the case of “legislators,” anything they want.
If we’re solving a branding and image problem for higher education, sure, change the department names and majors as ASU has done with its history (School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies), chemistry (School of Molecular Sciences), and political science departments (School of Politics and Global Studies).
But if we’re truly looking at innovations in learning with direct and immediate impact on students, the unit of change should not be majors or departments.
We should be looking at the class level.
We should be looking at the class level for a number of reasons. For one, it’s far easier to retool a class than it is to reconfigure a major or department. I’ve done it many times over the years, shifting approaches as occasion seems to demand it.
If someone told me that my first-year writing course needed to now embrace one of Selingo’s knottiest problem clusters, I could have that up and running in the normal pre-semester prep time, no muss, no fuss. In fact, if you scoured the course syllabi for every FYW course across the country, I bet you’d find dozens (probably more) already oriented around these very topics.
Here, I am also thinking about my successful failed innovation during my time at Clemson University, my greatest work and my greatest disappointment.
Thanks to a grant from their Creative Inquiry and Undergraduate Research program, I was able to teach a sequence of courses with a significantly overlapping cohort of students centered around the production of a campus humor publication aspiring to be something akin to the Harvard Lampoon. I did it because I’d worked with some obviously talented students in other courses who I thought might be interested in the project and was looking for a new challenge as an instructor. It meant taking on additional work, which I was glad to do.
The first semester was a special topics 300-level English course in the theory and practice of humor during which The Rapscallion was established with the production of four quasi-samizdat issues. The next semester was technically categorized as “business writing” as we worked on establishing things like a business plan and structure for the publication. The third semester was a course in publishing where we would plan for the ultimate production of a four-color perfect-bound book of the best material from previous issues of The Rapscallion.
The fourth semester would be executing that plan, designing, editing, copyediting, and publishing that book.
From there, a student-run organization would be set up to keep going in perpetuity, birthed from the project, but now free to run on its own steam as students pass the knowledge and practices down from generation to generation. As faculty advisor, I would help those interested in pursuing comedy writing by recommending them to friends and contacts at places like The Daily Show, Bob’s Burgers, The Onion, The Colbert Report, The Office, Parks & Recreation, Funny or Die, and so on. Those who didn’t have an interest in pursuing careers in writing at least could point to a meaningful undergraduate experience.
But the fourth semester didn’t happen. When the recession hit, the small grant I’d received which was meant to cover the production costs for the book was reabsorbed into the larger department structure. Between semesters two and three, I’d already found out that a department-initiated move to convert me to a tenure track position was nixed up the administrative ladder.
When my wife got a job in Charleston, there was no reason to stay. The Rapscallion never got past its handful of photocopied, saddle stitched issues.
The chief barrier to Jeff Selingo’s vision is not bureaucratic, or rooted in sclerotic institutions unable to adapt to the digital age. There are thousands of faculty across the country who are eager classroom innovators, but many of them do not have the time or space or incentive to innovate. They are untenured. There is no funding for professional development. There is no route for advancement if they do innovate.
They are working second jobs to stay afloat financially.
Some of those faculty are at Arizona State University, where English lecturers who are responsible for servicing over 8000 students a semester have loads of 125 students each as part of a 5 classes per semester, just over double the maximum recommended number of students for teaching writing.
Think of the untapped potential. Consider what could be done with that force of passionate teachers unleashed on engaging students in solving those knottiest problems, like the implications of the corporatized university and its role in eroding broad-based belief in education as a public good.
Sure, we should be thinking about student majors and learning, but there’s some other work which has to happen first. If learning is going to matter, let’s worry less about the schools and institutes, more about the teaching and teachers.
 As is de rigueur in these pieces, we’re first told that the fast moving world has passed by the hidebound higher ed institutions as we now have “the digital economy instead of the industrial economy demanding a new set of skills.” There is always a bit of ahistoricism in this framework (not unique to Selingo by any means) which assumes that college was once actually designed around preparing people for the industrial economy.
This is not quite true. The old-school “college” of Selingo’s formulation was designed around classical notions of “education,” not job preparation. When college was primarily the province of the privileged, the preparation was college itself, a kind of finishing school for the gentry, majors be damned. As college has become less white, less affluent, more racially and socioeconomically diverse, its role as credentialer/job preparer has become considerably more pronounced. We are asking higher ed to do things it was never designed to do and did not do before. The societal and macroeconomic conditions which colleges are expected to respond to are largely out of their control.
This is not to say institutions shouldn’t attempt to adapt to this shift, but we should practice more rigor in describing what the shift is and the roots and implications of that shift. If college wasn't so expensive to students, we wouldn't be having conversations about how we need to retool majors, or if we were, they wouldn't be these conversations.
 The initial cohort of Rapscallion students have gone on to amazing things, which I’m not as up to date with as I used to be since I quit Facebook a year or so ago.
 I was putting 25 hours a week into editing the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency website for the bulk of my time at Clemson