Thursday, February 21, 2013

Are the Humanities Killing Themselves?

This blog post, as with many of the others I have written recently, focuses on the efforts of some to change the standard student workload at Trinity to 4 courses/semester each counting for 4 credits (a 4-4 load) instead of the current 5 courses of 3 credits. This proposal normally also has attached to it a change in teaching load so that faculty teach 3 courses one semester and 2 the next instead of 3 courses every semester [*].  This change will have a lot of implications, but one interesting point to note is that, if I paint with overly broad strokes, most of the support for this comes from the humanities and social sciences, while most of the opposition comes from the STEM and pre-professional departments [**]. Something I have discussed with others, and which I truly believe to be the case, is that the departments supporting this move, along with a proposed change to our common curriculum, do so at their own peril. I want to elaborate on this idea here in part to record it and perhaps to bring it forward for broader discussions.

The move to the 4-4, and the new curriculum proposal that will come with it have one inevitable consequence, students will take a smaller number of courses and will get less diversity in the departments they are exposed to. The 4-4 makes that first point unavoidable. The second point happens because our current breadth requirements would be impossible to maintain under the 4-4 and the new proposal, which I should point out I support, does not require students to take courses in as many different departments.

So why do I think that this should bother the faculty in the humanities? Well, to pick on one particular major, how many people enter college saying they want to major in Religion? Of course, Religion isn't alone. There are a number of majors that only get majors by having them take introductory courses and fall in love with the topic. Some are even in STEM. The Geoscience department comes to mind as an example. This alone should probably give those departments second thoughts, but I am sure they can easily say that it will improve their departments in other ways so it is worth it.

What I feel they ignore though is the changing national view on the role of higher education. More pressure is being put on the idea that students should major in something that will get them jobs. This goes along with the complaints that students are leaving college with too much debt and then they aren't able to find jobs. This is why we see proposed legislation that will force colleges to report earnings of graduates by major.

I am personally already feeling some of the fallout of the change in how students are picking majors. I have 35 students in my CS2 courses at Trinity. We haven't had that many students go on to the second semester in a decade. CS is one of the few areas where people hear about there being lots of jobs and not enough people to fill them these days. It might still be true that no one goes to college thinking they want to major in Geoscience, but if they look at the incomes associated with that major they can probably be convinced.

What about other departments like Religion and History? I expect they are going to take a hit from this in the next few years as more and more students enter college thinking about their earning potential. Even if the Wyden-Rubio legislation does not pass, they have access to things like the "What's it Worth?" report for Georgetown. They will also find things like this Forbes article entitled "The 10 Worst College Majors", which slams most humanities majors for high unemployment and low incomes. So why would these departments support changes that are going to likely reduce the number of students coming into their classrooms and hence their ability to attract majors? Obviously I don't have an answer to that because it makes no sense to me, but I want to dig a bit deeper to make it clear what could be at stake for these departments.

Let's pick the top two departments from the top of the What's it Worth salary survey and some comparison humanities departments and look at faculty counts.

Engineering Science - 9
Computer Science - 7
Art and Art History - 12
History - 11
Religion - 9

Right now the humanities departments have as many or more faculty than the majors that will inevitably be getting a lot more attention if students and parents really start looking at ROI on a college education. (I know that liberal arts are all about the additional benefits of being broadly educated, but I promise you that parents are not blind to the dollar signs when they are looking at colleges for their kids. As such, this can't be ignored no matter how good the arguments are that some things matter more than money.) So the move to the 4-4 and the new curriculum will contract the distribution requirement and pull students out of almost every department, making major counts more important. Then, if we really do get a push toward majors that lead to jobs it seems to me that a lot of the humanities departments might have a hard time filling their classrooms and justifying their current faculty counts.

Note that I'm not wishing this on them or saying this is a good thing. Quite the opposite. By opposing the 4-4, I'm pushing to keep students taking a broader distribution of courses and make it so that even if more students choose to major in the sciences, the humanities will retain reasonable enrollments. I'm writing this because I don't think most of the humanities faculty see it that way and I'm wondering what they expect to see happen with their total head count in the next five years if they pass the 4-4 and the new curriculum.

[*] This isn't really a drop in teaching load. The current system has faculty teaching a total of 18 credit hours each year. The altered system would have them teaching 20.

[**] This is an overly broad generalization. My guess is that this post will be read by at least one Communications professor who doesn't favor the proposal. It is also problematic for Music. In addition, I'm sure a few STEM faculty are supportive. However, in general this dividing line holds.


  1. Not only is the 4-4 not a real drop in teaching load, but it actually increases the amount of work for our colleagues who serve as department chairs. Because, you know, they have loads of extra time.

  2. Agreed. The only way it is less work at all is based on that argument that you have fewer preps. If done in the way that I think would be right, it has more class time. When CS has looked at this, we find that to make our curriculum work we probably need to start teaching a bunch of 2-credit courses to get proper breadth. So our number of preps will probably increase for everyone.