Both Matt Reed and John Warner have responded to Jeff Selingo’s argument at the Chronicle (paywalled) that majors are not valuable for what students need from college as they embark on work which will be "hybrid" in the future. Matt Reed outlined the chaos that would ensue if we had shifting thematic clusters of courses switched up every few years to replace our usual paths to graduation. John Warner pointed out we can more easily make changes to courses or course clusters than to entire programs. I would add majors aren’t nearly as pressing a hindrance to preparing students for the future as the debt students are expected to take on to make up for lack of public funding that I enjoyed as an undergraduate, able to pay for books and tuition with a part-time job. Doing away with majors won’t make students less anxious, nor will it necessarily make them better prepared for whatever comes next just because they took more courses clustered in themes from different departments.
I thought I’d add a couple of points informed by the academic year that’s just ending as I write this. One has to do with serving on our curriculum committee which spent the last three years developing a new outline for general education, informed by multiple rounds of discussion and feedback. Next year we get to do the nitty-gritty work of defining the new requirements and then developing or redesigning courses to populate the new curriculum. There’s no way to do this work fast and change it up every few years without unintended and unfortunate consequences.
This mania for throwing it all out also somehow assumes what is taught to majors in chemistry or political science hasn’t changed over the years or that teachers don’t try new ways of teaching things on a regular basis. (I’m getting awfully sick of the tag “for the 21st century” attached to anything in an argument, as if we didn't notice the millennium happened.) Critics often say faculty don’t want change. In my experience they want it, but there isn’t enough time or funding to make the changes they would love to make. So they make the changes they can – at the course level every semester, at the department level fairly often – and grapple with the big structural changes less often because it takes time to tinker with all the moving parts while you’re keeping the existing curriculum running. It’s a lot easier for a professional pundit to take a year off and design a big thing than for an entire faculty to design a big new thing while also teaching, doing research, advising students, improving courses and assignments, and all the other things that have to be done. Suggesting we do away with majors ignores all the time that would go into developing something else that has coherence and is attractive to prospective students who, in my experience, tend to be far more interested in majors when they visit than in any other part of the academic program, even if they don't really know what they want, yet. ("You don't have majors? Uh ... okay. Bye.")
The other thing has to do with a project I’m wrapping up with a student researcher. We wanted to know more about the role research experiences (broadly defined) play in our students’ lives, so we distributed a survey in several classes and interviewed students and faculty in three departments. It’s a small study, so we can’t claim much, but one thing that struck me forcefully is how eloquently students discussed their research – the methods they used, the discipline’s theoretical foundations, issues of validity and ethics and why the things they were exploring mattered. They were deeply attached to their majors, not as a body of knowledge but as a framework for discovery, as a set of values and methods that were distinctly connected to a discipline.
What was even more interesting is that they were able to describe how their learning in the major was applicable to other situations. They easily talked about how work they did in a chemistry lab or while writing a senior thesis in Classics or analyzing discourse in an online community for a communication studies course taught them to read critically, weigh evidence, consider multiple perspectives, and persist when things didn’t go as planned. I’m not sure they could do that if they hadn’t delved deeply into a subject and had challenging experiences that involved being part of a disciplinary community that asks certain kinds of questions using particular methods.
This cheers me up because I’ve often worried we don’t give enough thought to what students take with them when they graduate. Librarians spend a lot of time helping students respond to academic tasks using library resources that in many cases won’t be available to them after graduation. It's encouraging to hear students talk about how they feel they can now approach information with some sophistication regardless of its subject. I know it’s to soon to pop the champagne – it was a very limited study – but maybe the kids are all right, and what they learn in their majors seems to have a lot to do with it.