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A Minor Problem I

Among what seems to be the last crop of Record articles for the year is this Op-Ed on minors at the college. Sadly, perhaps because it was published right before finals, the piece hasn’t elicited any comments. Which is a shame! The two student authors who penned this article obviously put some time into writing it and we ought to take some time to listen, although not uncritically, to what they have to say. An excerpt:

While the value of having minors for the job search process has the easy potential to be exaggerated, minors offer some appreciable value when graduates seek work. This value comes in the form of official certification. Students have the ability, even without minors, to take around five courses in a subject. But, for employers, it is difficult to discern such a specialty without formal certification. While employers with thorough hiring procedures will likely notice such areas of commitment by combing through an applicant’s transcript, a minor can ensure that an applicant’s disciplines of specialty don’t go overlooked. Minors do not change one’s ability to specialize in a subject. Rather, by providing official certification, they make it easier for these academic specialties to be recognized.

Quite a bit here, but, let’s be brave and soldier on. Comments:

1) I start to take issue at the second line: minors offer “appreciable value” when graduates seek work? I’m doubtful. Major degrees barely signal expertise anymore; why would a minor? My guess is that a minor — even one relevant to a given position — helps you get a job about as much as being an amateur flautist helps you get into Williams. Which is to say, not very.

2) Even if we’re willing to grant that minor degrees have “appreciable,” albeit small, value to employers, is that a good reason to offer them? There’s quite a few things the college could do to pump up the value of the Williams degree: start mentioning our US News ranking in advertisements, recruit harder, maybe inflate grades a bit more to help those not graduating cum laude get into fancy professional schools.

And, strangely, I’m alright with most of those things! We ought to do the best we can to communicate the value of a Williams education to everyone — prospective students, employers, the hoi polloi, everyone — but we shouldn’t cheapen ourselves to do it.

Now grade inflation is well ahead of the “cheapening ourselves” line. Is offering minors? I’d have to say  so. We’re talking about a total of five courses for a minor — one introductory, one “gateway” and three or so conducted at a level that we might term “intermediate.” Is that really enough expertise to award a degree for? If so, where do we draw the line? Should we also start giving students commendatory stickers for every course they manage to pass?

In any serious field, and I like to think that all areas of studies at Williams are serious, five courses is enough to get your feet wet. Which is alright! You can only do so much in four-years; perhaps recognizing how much is left to learn would do the student body more good than vigorously credentialing what little they’ve actually learned.

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#1 Comment By anon On June 8, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

Having a minor in a foreign language could help some.

#2 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On June 8, 2016 @ 2:41 pm

I think having another formal academic concentration can only help in a job search. If nothing else, it shows a certain level of commitment and achievement.

I would guess that if “minors” were instituted, the number of double majors would drop significantly. That would be too bad.

#3 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On June 8, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

It is useful to look at other NESCAC schools and see what they do. Consider Middlebury:

Students may elect to complete one minor if they are undertaking one major (either departmental, joint, or interdisciplinary). A student may declare two minors if s/he is pursuing one departmental major. A student declaring two majors may not declare any minors, with the Education Studies minor as an exception to that rule.

Students who elect to complete a minor must declare their intention to do so by the end of the add period of the seventh semester of study. No minor will be accepted after registration for a student’s final semester.

Minors will consist of four to six courses, at least one of which must be at an advanced level.

Departments and programs may designate configurations of courses that will constitute a minor (or minors) for that department, program, or major.

Students may not self-design a minor.

Faculty may design interdepartmental minors in those areas of the curriculum in which a major is not offered.

Minors will be listed on students’ transcripts.

A course may count toward a student’s major or minor, but not toward both. A course counted toward one minor may not be counted toward an additional minor.

I assume that other NESCAC schools have similar programs but don’t know the details. Anyone?

Note that you need to be aware of various knock-on effects of the decision to offer a minor. You might think that doing so would allow lots of students to minor in economics and major in what they love, as opposed to double majoring, which is common at Williams today. But, at Middlebury, so many students were minoring in economics that the department decided to stop offering the minor, as of 2012.

I suspect that the Williams Economics department would have similar preferences.

#4 Comment By Jim On June 8, 2016 @ 3:32 pm

When I was at Williams in the Seventies, you could do something they called a “concentration” in addition to your major. It wasn’t really a minor but more a cross-discipline type of thing. For example, you could “concentrate” in Asian Studies and various courses could qualify for that such as classes in Asian history, art, language, etc. Don’t know whether they still have that concept at Williams.

#5 Comment By eph20 On June 8, 2016 @ 5:24 pm

My problem with minors is, in a strange sort of way, mostly moral. While it’d gross me out a little, I don’t really care if Williams made like the boy scouts and started handing out merit badges.

What bothers me is the idea that Williams students — and worse, graduated Williams students — can’t find work because they’re unable to narrate their skills/experience/specialties effectively without having those abilities stamped on their degree.

I won’t even get into the issue of how such a person would function long after Williams, when the college stops acting as a surety of what you know/are able to do, but, I will say that I think we ought not to let those sorts of failings of intellectual courage/facility slide.

If we can dictate what a student can say, do, write, and who they can invite to speak, can’t we go full-tilt on paternalism and at least encourage some of the things a liberal education ought to provide, namely the ability and courage to express what you know without clutching the skirts of yr. alma mater.

#6 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On June 8, 2016 @ 7:09 pm

Jim,

Same is still true today.

On their way to a bachelor of arts degree, Williams students major in a core area of study (like Chinese or environmental policy). Instead of academic minors, we have concentrations, which are groupings of courses around certain topics that pull from many departments and disciplines (like cognitive science, which has elements of psychology, computer science, philosophy, math, and more).

But this is, of course, different from the minor option under consideration here. That is, if Williams offers a major in topic X, it does not offer a concentration in X, by definition.

#7 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On June 8, 2016 @ 7:12 pm

Having a minor in a foreign language could help some.

Probably not. First, most employers don’t care about language skills. Second, those employers that do will test your language ability directly. They won’t care whether or not you officially minored in Japanese at Williams or if you just claim on your resume to be “fluent in Japanese.” Either way, they will chat with you (or have someone chat with you) in Japanese and make their own determination.

#8 Comment By anon On June 9, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

That depends. Not everyone is going to take the time to chat with you in the language you proclaim proficiency in.

Sure, some may give you a test. Still, having that much language in your background officially could make a difference that easily translates without having to look at an official transcript for specific courses or test the applicant for the job.

If working proficiency in a language is required having a minor in it coming from Williams could make a difference- especially in comptetative job offerings or volunteerism/ service related jobs directly after college: Peace Corp placement, embassy related jobs, teaching overseas etc.

There are a wide warranty of jobs where having a skill such as a second language denoted on a transcript could help tilt the scales over other applicants. We are not talking about competitive processes where there may be scores/ hundreds of applicants for a single job.