Down with departments

One of the great tragedies of American higher education is that essentially every school bought into the organization of the modern research university. In that model, professors are distributed into departments that are defined by a given discipline or group of disciplines. They teach students that discipline, which means that they teach students how to do research within that discipline or, effectively, how to go to grad school in that discipline. There are transferable skills conveyed, of course, but the “job” that it prepares you for — or prepares you to train for — is academia. And as much as the idea of an “oversupply” of professors is abused, I think we can all agree that even absent adjunctification, there are not and never will be enough professor jobs for literally every English major, for instance.

This is where the liberal arts ideal comes in. Students should get a breadth of knowledge, unconstrained by any narrow field. And how they do this is, for the most part, by taking an incoherent smorgasbord of introductory courses to various disciplines. Students generally resent being forced to take these courses, and academics don’t like teaching them — meaning that adjuncts do. Lately departments are figuring out that this hurts them in the quest for majors, which brings me to my next complaints: majors.

Oh my God, majors! I wish the system of majors could be abolished altogether. It misleads students (and their parents), who generally hold some fetishistic belief in the power of a major to lead directly to a job, as though the job market is the next level of college applications. This is obviously not the case, and it is not even the case that you need to go to grad school in the field you majored in! The whole major thing is literally a lie. And it’s a lie that serves the worst trends in higher ed. It creates interdepartmental competition for “majors,” in order to maintain the department’s status, its hiring clout, and in the last resort, its very existence. It encourages a naive belief that you’re getting some set chunk of knowledge from college, which feeds directly into the naive belief that majors are direct paths to jobs. And it also creates a ton of administrative overhead, as a four-person department still needs a chair, and these departments must all be corralled into a school (or college), overseen by a dean who in turn answers to a provost, etc., etc.

What is the basis for this entire architecture of departments and majors? Expertise. That’s the basis for the university’s legitimacy and for its internal prestige economy. But here’s a dirty little secret: first- and second-year students cannot remotely handle “expertise” as traditionally conceived. Indeed, learning from a hardcore expert can be pedagogically problematic, because if someone knows something really really well, they have a harder time getting into the mindset of someone who knows something not at all. Departments tacitly admit this by having graduate students — aspiring but not-yet experts — teach many of the lower-level courses.

I think we can go further, though. This is based on personal experience. I have taught all manner of materials at Shimer. Teaching something within my expertise, narrowly conceived, is the exception rather than the rule. When I try to teach within my expertise, in fact, it generally doesn’t go as well as when I’m learning along with the students. I have taught visual arts, music, sociology, anthropology, economics, world religions, and now even some primatology and evolutionary theory. If they let me, I’ll teach chemistry and biology.

I am able to teach all these subjects because I can read and because I’m naturally curious. It’s not because I’m a polymathic genius with unparalleled reach. It’s just that people with more expertise than me have collaborated in putting together a good set of materials, and I’m able to keep ahead of the students to a sufficient degree to give them some value-add. At the very least, I model a certain enthusiasm and curiosity, I let them know that it’s okay to be wrong sometimes, and I provide them with the requisite superegoic pressure to keep working through stuff. I learn along with the students, and I can tell they’re learning too. Course evaluations seem to bear this out — because Shimer is one of those weird places where we actually have a consciously articulated pedagogical model and hence don’t throw students back onto the worst form of consumerism when we ask them to assess what happened in class.

My experience also tells me that developing a curriculum like Shimer’s is difficult and contentious. One fight that the division into discipline-centered departments spares an academic community is the fight over what it is that we do here. Each little fiefdom can say that they transmit a discipline, which we know is worthwhile because it just is. As for the school as a whole? I don’t know, maybe we inculcate leadership or excellence or … whatever. Social justice? Yeah, sure. We create citizens, maybe, just to make sure we don’t alienate conservatives too much.

I think there are probably possible models between Shimer’s extreme core curriculum (two-thirds of the typical student’s credits) and the prevalent model of “getting your gen-eds out of the way so that you can focus on your major.” It may even be the case that Shimer itself needs to loosen up a smidge! But some day people are going to realize that paying 100-grand for leadership and excellence is bullshit, and it would be nice if before that day came, we actually created a curriculum that was halfway cohesive and persuasive.

One thought on “Down with departments

  1. On the disciplines: I notice that, in the introduction to college textbooks like Silberberg’s Chemistry, the disciplines are treated somewhat mythologically. ‘Biology’ is doing this, ‘genetics’ is doing that, and hence it has never been a better time to study what chemistry is doing. Kuhn speaks of the “persuasive and pedagogic” tendencies of textbook science, as if one needed to persuade a high schooler that what they were reading is true. Isn’t this what the laboratory section is for? A more rigorous system of physical logic would certainly improve the ability of those outside the sciences to engage in scientific discussion.

    In relation to your post, I imagine that the textbook tradition reenforces the division of reality into arbitrary disciplines.

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