May 11, 2012

Time for a major overhaul

The redundant, often overlapping, College catalog would benefit from some housekeeping.

Newsweek’s recent articles on both the most “useful” and “useless” undergraduate majors likely went unobserved by most U of C students for a number of reasons; in the first place, the articles measured useful-/uselessness as a function of post-graduate employment, average income, etc.—metrics that would be disdainful to most die-hard proponents of the liberal arts, or, at least, those in Hyde Park. Moreover—and this is sure to make U of C hardliners’ hearts swell with pride—a good portion of the majors listed by Newsweek, profitable or otherwise, are just not available as programs of study at the University of Chicago. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, considering, after all, that majors like Nursing, Communications, and Engineering are strictly off-limits in the Grey City. On the other hand, the U of C isn’t exactly short on majors whose statuses as programs of study are worthy of reconsideration, and this is an issue that can end up affecting most undergrads whether they heed it or not.

The College currently offers 55 official programs of study, and while that might seem like a modest figure considering our lack of vocational majors (or the multitude of available programs of study at a place like Brown) this list of 55 is far longer than it needs to be. Consider, for example, the wealth of options confronting an undergraduate with an intellectual predilection for, say, religion. There’s the New Collegiate Division’s Religious Studies program, which offers an interdisciplinary approach to religion and how it relates to and is affected by human cultures. There’s also Religion and the Humanities, a program that aims to imbue a greater understanding of religion and its relation to the human condition, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary methods. So what would the salient difference between these two majors be? Uh. From what the college catalogue has to say, it looks like the only formal distinction between these programs is the fact that Religious Studies has a more rigorous series of requirements, culminating with a BA thesis as opposed to a simple senior project in Religion and the Humanities.

But let’s not stop there. If early Christian literature is your fancy, then fear not—there’s a program of study in Early Christian Lit just for you. Unfortunately, it has exactly zero courses listed under its name in the college catalogue. To compensate for this, Early Christian Literature majors can combine their major with that of Religion and the Humanities, which has a full three courses listed, two of those being seminars for the senior project. The other listed course is Introduction to Religious Studies, which coincidentally happens to be a required course for Religious Studies majors, who have a quite extensive course list to choose from, covering multiple religions across several different disciplines. In other words, it looks as though Religious Studies undergrads could triple-major just by dropping an email to their adviser the week of graduation.

Perhaps more serious than catalogue inflation, though, is the balkanization caused by such an exhaustive list of programs of study. Take the example of Gender and Sexuality Studies and Sociology. Gender/Queer theory is an important contribution to the field of sociology and has been expanded upon and enriched by decades of study and research; giving it its own major is not unlike creating a major for game or chaos theory separate from Econ (although a more exact analogy might be creating a separate Game or Chaos Theory major in which you can get credit for a course on Jurassic Park). By separating Gender/Queer Theory from Sociology and making it interdisciplinary-saturated, so to speak, both Gender Studies and Sociology majors suffer: Gender Studies students don’t get introduced to much of the methodology or statistical work required of the Sociology program, and burgeoning Sociologists can conceivably navigate through their undergraduate tenure without ever having to encounter gender or queer theory. Perhaps worse yet, it creates undeniable stigma: Gender Studies is too abstract, too theoretical—something that serious Sociologists should stay away from.

All this is not to say that having a wide selection of majors or interdisciplinary programs is a bad thing; far from it. It’s quite probable that the reverse situation would be even more undesirable: Fewer than 10 programs of study, unwieldy departments and little or no opportunity to put disciplines in dialogue with one another, in a sort of bizarro-world reversal of the Core Curriculum. In fact, most undergraduates—the author of this article included—would argue that having a diverse selection of majors and the opportunity for some disciplinary cross-pollination is reassuring and even a little relieving at times. Ultimately, some balance is best, but in the meantime the current situation appears a little more comic than anything else. The College catalogue is wrought with some majors that are whimsically directed towards non-existent demographics and others that can leave one a jack of many academic trades and a master of none. At the very least, a little scrutiny might be in order in some administrative offices.

Henry Ginna is a third-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.