Friday, September 4, 2009

What does a major mean?

Westminster is considering a new proposal for "contract majors." The proposal would clarify and simply the process that a student uses to create a major that is not on the books. It would also establish guidelines for all contract majors (all students in a contract major would have to complete a capstone experience, for example.)

I don't know how to think about this proposal, because I don't know how to think about majors anymore. I assume there was a time where the number of majors on campuses was relatively stable. The major topics corresponded with the way that academe thought of disciplines. You have a discipline? We have a major for it.

As sub-disciplines have expanded since the 1970s, so have the number of majors, but still in alignment with sub-disciplines. So where once you had only an engineering major, now you might have majors in electrical and chemical engineering, the better to train students to complete the research required by the disciplines.

At a school like Westminster, though, we have increased the number of majors substantially even though we aren't driven by research specialties. Instead our new majors grow out of a sense that a market exists, either because we believe students are asking for a degree in a particular field, or because we want to keep up with competitor schools. At a place like Westminster, that means we have a lot of majors, many affiliated with programs that have only one or two faculty and a handful of students.

Our desire to keep up means that many students will take classes in several disciplines in order to complete a major because we don't have enough faculty to house all of the classes in a single department. This is probably a good thing, because it leads to interdisciplinarity. But it also leads to the new contract major proposal, which looks like a way to multiply majors indefinitely.

So I'm torn. On one hand I don't feel any loyalty to the old majors because they don't necessarily represent anything except tradition (which isn't a trifling thing, I know). On the other, contract majors leave me cold because they suggest that students ought to be able to shape their entire educational experience and/or that they don't get sufficient leeway in an existing major in order to learn their way into their passions and their careers. And they undermine the community among students that is at the core of any good disciplinary experience.

What ought to be the basis of a major? Why would a school create a new one? Who should drive that creation--students? faculty? employers? Why have them at all?

1 comment:

Bryce said...

In practice, the term "major" seems to have become synonymous with "curriculum." In other words, when a student says they have a particular major, they really mean that they have committed to enrolling in and completing a specified set of courses (often with a little bit of flexibility, but not much). This seems to trivialize education and present it as just a more complex set of hoops to jump through.

Recent progress in the learning outcomes realm is promising, but we still seem stuck in the instructional model or paradigm suggested by Tagg. What if rather than offering majors, students could build any curriculum they wanted, so long as upon completion of that set of courses they could demonstrate proficiency in a broad set of skills and abilities (through a portfolio, etc.)? This would eliminate the issue of an ever lengthening major list, give students flexibility, but also keep institutions true to their mission of preparing students to leave and be productive citizens.

The challenge for campuses in this model would be determining what outcomes/competencies they would require and how they would know whether a student was proficient.