What’s the point of an X department?

Over at Crooked Timber there’s a discussion on eliminating some majors to save money, particularly if they don’t have many graduates.

The issue made it to Leiter because several of the Philosophy departments in those institutions fall into the low-major category. But is producing Philosophy majors the point of having a Philosophy department? In Our Underachieving Colleges (CT review still on its way: DD to blame if I never get round to it) Derek Bok claims that the standard assumptions within most departments in research universities is that the undergraduate curriculum is for attracting and then teaching majors, and, further, that our attention to the majors should be shaped by the aim of preparing them well for graduate school. This means that the curriculum is designed for a tiny minority of the students who take classes, and even many of them, probably, would be better off doing something other than going to graduate school (that’s me, not Bok, saying the last bit).

Philosophy departments should take heed of Samidh’s observation that philosophers are good entrepreneurs and point out that they may produce the next big alumni donor!

I wonder the degree to which Bok’s claim is true in mathematics, science, and engineering. I think it’s probably true that the average biology major or electrical engineer is being prepared for work at a company. Even senior electives are useful in this sense, especially if they are project-oriented. However, it’s probably the case that if you major in math and do not plan to go to graduate school, then your senior seminar in commutative algebra is pretty much useless for the work you’ll do later. But is the average math major at a public university being prepared for (some) graduate program? Is math in this sense closer to the humanities programs mentioned above?

In electrical engineering, it’s to go work in a company (or for the government) designing/building stuff, and those specialized classes are geared for that. On average, I think undergraduate programs in engineering in the US don’t emphasize going on to graduate study. An exception is the profit-turning one-year masters programs that have become popular in recent years. Designing a program to prepare people primarily for graduate school or designing a program to prepare people primarily for the workforce misses the point of college.

The story you hear is that a classical liberal arts education in the US is supposed to teach you to think critically and be an active and thoughtful member of society. So what does that mean for engineers? In a sense, design choices are a form of critical analysis within the context of engineering, but I think that kind of perspective can be construed more broadly. We’re so keen on formulating notions of optimality or engineering tradeoffs that we don’t also consider the societal aspects of the things that we design. It would be nice to get upper-division engineering classes that talk about where technology is headed, where society is headed, and how those interact on a more technical level. This kind of thinking is good preparation for work and for research. I think there are some classes like that out there, but they’re more or an anomaly than the norm, and they’re not really required. But it would be valuable for the students, regardless of where they go.

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5 thoughts on “What’s the point of an X department?

  1. Obviously I’m not the expert in the family, but from what I’ve seen of math departments (which is quite a bit for someone not in one), I have to observations: a) The vast majority of the classes are not for the relatively few math majors. They are either the intro classes that everyone takes, or are for engineering students. Math departments are mostly service to the rest of the university when it comes to undergrad teaching. b) I get the idea that most math majors become actuaries, and only a few go on to graduate school.

    We’re so keen on formulating notions of optimality or engineering tradeoffs that we don’t also consider the societal aspects of the things that we design.

    I just heard a job talk last month (on engineering education) mention that one way that some departments are considering attracting more female engineers is to put these things at the forefront of the curriculum instead of hiding them away. Women are more drawn to careers that help people/society. Many go toward engineering thinking they’ll be doing that, but then back out when there is no mention of the human side of things ever, in any of their classes, and they lose interest.

    • The vast majority of English classes are also to satisfy basic composition requirements too. The argument is that if you major in English at a research university you end up being prepared for graduate school rather than whatever else you might do.

      Similarly in math, a lot of the classes that are offered at the upper undergrad levels (at research universities) are maybe not so useful to potential actuaries, but are useful for grad school.

      Why? Because profs like to teach commutative algebra and not actuarial science. Same thing is probably true for English departments — the research focus leaks into the curriculum.

      So really it boils down to : what is the point of a math degree program, or an English degree program? What is the point of a major, actually?

  2. The funny thing is that the departments that might be eliminated are the ones you may not want to eliminate to preserve the difference between the academic enterprise and for-profit enterprise. Can you imagine an university without a philosophy department?

    My biggest qualm is that I feel we don’t really have enough mingling with other departments (philosophy, history, etc) in engineering. At the very least, it would have students more interested, keeping demand up for the courses offered there.

    A friend of mine said that a spike of interest in portuguese language by students in the last 4 years, helped spur a mini-hiring spree in positions for this language. Somehow the language has been a bit more relevant for young people today, and it helps.

    Philosophy needs to open up a bit to, at a starting level, be made relevant to student interests. You can have advanced courses and research and so on. But need to promote interest…

    I always think about economics: a field where a lot of the science is somewhat philosophical. If they are keeping student interest up, maybe philosophy can too. (yeah, I am aware jobs at investment banks maybe linked to your econ job, but deductive thinking is much stronger in philosophy…)

  3. Maybe this is a place to start: “It would be nice to get upper-division engineering classes that talk about where technology is headed, where society is headed, and how those interact on a more technical level.”

    Many undergraduate students I meet have these questions in mind. Most graduate students are more in tune with finding an academic job/fitting in with the research community. In some ways, we have already chosen our path.

    I have this vague feeling that the death of the liberal arts education in the US, will represent the death of one of the critical advantages that has made this system so successful compared to other countries. It is interesting that most power brokers in the world have had a good liberal arts education instead of a more professional education.

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