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Changes in Majors, 3

Jim Reische provided this detailed information (pdf) about changes in majors over the last 30 years. Previous discussions here, here, here and here. Let’s discuss for four days. Day 3.

There has been a decrease in the percentage of “humanities” majors at Williams over the last 30 years. The percentage of Div I majors has decreased from 30% to 21% of all majors. The more humanties-esque majors in Div II have seen a similar decline. For example, the average number of history majors from 1986 to 1988 was 94. From 2015 to 2017 it was 54. As a percentage of all majors, the fall has been even more dramatic. Comments (with some repetition from a previous discussion):

1) In 50 years, these sorts of worries will seem as absurd and parochial as the worries 50 years ago about declining enrollment in Latin and Greek. That was a big deal, back in the day. But the decline didn’t stop and couldn’t (really) have been stopped. The same is true of the move away from, say, English and toward Stats/CS

2) Majors (especially since they do not include information about concentrations) are a rough measure of enrollments and faculty workload. I haven’t found any data, but it would hardly be surprising of the total percentage of humanities (broadly understood) course enrollments at Williams has gone from 30% to 20%, or even lower. If so, big deal! Students should take classes in what they want.

3) Don’t the faculty deserve lots of the blame for the decline in student interest in the humanities? Let’s focus on history, and look at the courses on offer this spring at Williams. Much of this is good stuff. Who could complain about surveys of Modern China, Medieval England or Europe in Twentieth Century? Not me! I also have no problems with courses on more narrow topics. Indeed, classes on Witchcraft, Panics and The Suburbs are all almost certainly excellent, and not just because they are taught by some of the best professors in the department. But notice what is missing: No more courses on war (now that Jim Wood has retired). No courses on diplomatic history (RIP Russ Bostert). No courses in the sort of mainstream US history topics — Revolutionary Period, Civil War — which would interest scores of students. The History Department has chosen the form of its own destructor: a refusal to offer traditional classes, especially in military and diplomatic history, that students want to take.

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#1 Comment By BH On May 31, 2018 @ 9:28 am

Once again discussion of an important topic dragged down by what you know is a specious argument.

I actually agree with the critique that there is some neglect of broader topics/coverage in favor of the more specialized courses in some areas of study at Williams, but the History department seems like a really odd target of such a critique. Of course you know that it’s silly to take a single semester’s course offerings and use it as “evidence” on which to build an argument about a department’s curriculum, but it’s particularly misleading in this case. Did you bother to check on the courses offered in the fall semester? They included courses on the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and diplomatic history (at least between the U.S. and Japan). There are also a number of courses specifically on wars or at least dealing extensively with the topic.

Of course there are more specialized courses as well (and there should be, as you rightly note), but I don’t see any evidence that History has “chosen the form of its own destructor” in the manner you describe.

Evidence, in a case like this, would include actual enrollment figures for different types of courses over time.

#2 Comment By anonymous On May 31, 2018 @ 11:10 am

As a div III major back in the 80’s, one of the reasons I avoided history classes was the term papers. I love history, reading, and discussion, but cannot deal with research term papers whatsoever. Are such papers still the norm for history classes?

#3 Comment By abl On May 31, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

Re #3, I see two easy hypotheses for the decline in humanities majors:

(1): broader societal trends are pushing students towards majors that are perceived to be more practical (like stats/econ); or

(2): the humanities offerings at Williams are suffering now relative to 10 years ago.

I personally don’t see how (1) isn’t an obviously better explanation for these trends than (2) (especially given, as your early posts point out, this decline seems to correspond with the economic downturn as opposed to any recent change in humanities course offerings). At the very least, the evidence you provide doesn’t support (2): as BH points out, Williams does offer many of the specific classes that you think they should offer. Moreover, I think you’re off-base in interpreting the current desires of students. I would not expect history classes on the Revolutionary War to be a top draw for students today, for example–at least not in the way that your post implies. In other words, even accepting that it is possible that the history department has “chosen the form of its own destructor,” “a refusal to offer traditional classes, especially in military and diplomatic history,” is not that form — those subjects don’t represent the draw today that they may have during your time at Williams.

Probably the best way to test these two respective hypotheses would be to look at similar schools — Amherst, Middlebury, etc. How are humanities enrollments at these schools holding up? My rough understanding is that there is currently a pretty big national trend away from humanities and towards STEM majors and majors that are perceived to be practical (like business administration). I don’t know if that trend is reflected at other elite LACs, but it seems reasonable that it would be.

#4 Comment By abl On May 31, 2018 @ 1:23 pm

Finally, as a Div 1 / Div 2 double-major with a graduate degree in a Div 3 subject, I think these trends are a big shame. Div 1 and Div 2 have enormous amounts to offer Williams graduates, irrespective of one’s career path. Being able to write well and to think critically–the skills at the heart of most Div 1 and Div 2 classes–are key to most interesting and lucrative careers.

#5 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On June 1, 2018 @ 2:51 am

1) Williams used to have military and diplomatic historians on the faculty. They taught courses that were very popular and, I think, drew lots of students into the major.

2) Williams no longer has military/diplomatic historians on the faculty. This is a conscious choice. This means that Williams offers fewer (really, no) courses in military/diplomatic history.

3) There are no plans for Williams to hire any military/diplomatic historians. Again, this is a choice. Williams would rather hire historians who specialize in race/gender/social history, and offer courses in those areas.

4) If Williams were, instead, to hire military/diplomatic historians, their classes would be heavily enrolled and we would have more history majors than we would otherwise have had.

#6 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On June 1, 2018 @ 7:20 am

Blockquote:

4) If Williams were, instead, to hire military/diplomatic historians, their classes would be heavily enrolled and we would have more history majors than we would otherwise have had.

I don’t think this is necessarily true. Even though these classes were very popular in the past, its entirely possible that current students have different interests. Moreover, at least according to BH, there are still plenty of classes in these areas being taught.

#7 Comment By BH On June 1, 2018 @ 8:44 am

1. Whitney has it exactly correct. Student interests change. Indeed, isn’t the whole point of this week of discussion that student interests change? Do you have any evidence to back of your claim of what students right now want to study in their history courses?

2. The History Department has far more data than you have about their enrollments and, I’m quite sure, has thought in far more depth about the curriculum they offer. Part of that thinking has to do with maintaining strong enrollments and a strong number of majors.

3. Examples? It is indeed unlikely that the department has plans to hire a military historian, but they have plenty of classes that deal with wars and warfare (fewer on diplomatic history, though I’ve never heard of students clamoring for more diplomatic history, to put it mildly). I’m pretty sure it is been many decades since they hired a military historian. James Wood taught courses on WWI and WWII but he was neither trained nor hired as a military history. He came to this subject many years into his teaching career at Williams (having previously focused on Early Modern France and working as, yes, a social historian). His courses were popular, but many were tutorials which makes it difficult to argue about enrollment figures.

4. You provide zero evidence for this. Indeed you provide zero evidence for any of your argument here.

The shift in enrollments from the humanities to STEM have been going on for some time, but have accelerated substantially since the financial crisis. Do you really think there are students who decide to major in Chemistry, CS, or Stats instead of history because Williams doesn’t offer enough courses in diplomatic history? That’s absurd. Also, the number of history majors has long changed significantly year by year. There is a general trend downward compared to some Div III majors, but it is less drastic than you imply.