A minor improvement: Reconsidering the implementation of minors at the College

March 16, 2016 by The Williams Record Editorial Board

By reopening discussion on the possibility of adding minors to the College curriculum, the Committee on Educational Affairs and College Council is addressing a crucial concern about the College’s program of study and how students choose their courses. By offering the option of a minor in any department that currently offers a major, in addition to retaining its interdisciplinary concentrations, the College could encourage students to explore more fields of interest without feeling as compelled to double major as many do currently. It is worth considering, though, in what ways a curriculum with minors could affect both course offerings and student course choices. The implementation of such a fundamental change would have to take into account the possibility of unintended consequences.

Offering minors would encourage students to achieve more of a balance in breadth and depth, both of which are integral to the College’s liberal arts mission. Many students at the College have varying interests, often in different divisions, and engage in significant coursework across multiple disciplines. Under the current system, to get a degree in a certain subject, students must complete the major, possibly sacrificing other opportunities for academic exploration. The prevalence of double majors at the College, about 42 percent, speaks to the real value placed on such credentials, despite the liberal arts ideal that, theoretically, students should choose courses without such an emphasis on how it might look on their résumés. Double-majoring can force students to specialize more than they might want to; establishing minors could alleviate some of that burden.

That being said, we do have concerns about the ambiguous effect that minors could have on the pursuit of credentials as a goal of the College education. Ideally, students should be taking classes out of a genuine intellectual interest, rather than merely for academic qualifications. While adding minors could alleviate the pressure many students feel to double major, it could also have the opposite effect, pushing students to choose classes to complete multiple minors. Despite this risk, if the new system is implemented along with additional emphasis upon improving the advising process, it could offer a positive contribution to the liberal arts spirit of the College by providing students with an incentive to study multiple disciplines in depth without committing so many courses to an additional major.

In addition to affecting students’ course selection, minors could initially have adverse effects on academic departments. Since the minor option is likely to decrease the number of students who double major, it will necessarily decrease the total number of majors in some departments. We nonetheless believe that a minor should be offered in any department for which there is a major. Ideally, the option of the minor would not change the curriculum structures of the majors themselves. In comparison to its peer institutions, the College’s majors require relatively few courses, which allows students more freedom to consider classes in diverse departments. Adding minors should not alter this positive aspect of the College curriculum. Academic departments may, however, have to shift their course offerings to accommodate new interests; some may see introductory classes gain popularity, while more advanced classes may have increased enrollment, depending on the requirements of the minor.

It remains to be seen whether the sometimes-inefficient committee system will succeed in opening a larger community conversation – and eventually a decision – on the issue of academic minors. Not much progress seems to have been made since the Record editorialized on the subject two years ago (“Major or minor issue?,” April 23, 2014), when the Committee on Educational Policy last raised the possibility. Still, it is promising to see minors discussed again as a wider, student-driven initiative.

Ultimately, students should not be limited in how many majors, minors or concentrations they are allowed to pursue, but the addition of extra credentials in the form of minors could actually help deemphasize the option of double majoring. We believe that minors would allow students to explore varied courses, as liberal arts students should, while still achieving credentials that can be practically important as they move on to more specialized academic and professional careers.

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