How to Create a Bad Major

by Steve Jackson

I was visiting my forth college as a consultant in digital media curriculum development when I noticed a theme.  Digital media programs at most of these colleges were failing despite the expectation that they would succeed based on student interest and a strong job market.  In gathering my notes, I discovered that all of the previous programs I had created were plagued by the same problems, and those problems generally meant either a major that failed to attract students, or a major that failed to educate the students it attracted.

Large Committees – In every case where a curriculum was failing, it was attached to a large committee where members were selected for availability instead of skill, and where the leadership of the committee was not actually credentialed in digital media.  At one midwestern college seven faculty were assigned to the new “digital media” major.  Digital media is a vague term that can mean a strong film production course, to a media studies course aimed at getting students into graduate school, to a new media public relations program.  The large committee, with a preponderance of social sciences professor, created a major that looked much like the social science programs around it.  It failed because the one credentialed member of the committee did not have the authority to speak or the power to push the major into a more practical direction.  As a consultant the single most important act I ever did, and the one which almost always fixed the ship, was to change the membership of the founding committee.  By taking three faculty, giving them a chair with a clear knowledge of the field they were creating the major for, and teaching the committee tricks to streamline discussion, most programs could be fixed without further expenditure of consulting dollars.  In most cases having these faculty clearly represent a constituency in larger departments assured clear communication channels in creating a new major.

Broken Authority and Responsibility Chains – Related to the idea of large committees often failing to produce strong results is the problem of broken authority and responsibility.  At one college I consulted at a small committee was completely tipped over by having a single, very entitled, tenured administrator holding a position amongst three young professors with credentials.  The administrator had endless authority, but no responsibility for a failed or poor product.  As a result, the administrator’s presence turned a relatively innovative team into a cowed group, especially since the administrator was fond of using her power on tenure committees to force faculty away from their academic and professional opinions.  Order was restored when the committee was stripped of the administrator and told to create the best product they could from an academic standpoint: their efforts would not result in censure as an academic product.

Mistaken Center – Three majors in a row I was hired to repair had mistaken centers.  A mistaken center is when a group of faculty avoid the obvious connection of some subjects to broader areas of understanding for reasons of prejudice or politics.  In one case, a group of faculty had decided to propose a “social media” major.  Social media majors have run into a great deal of criticism for good reasons, and this one could serve as a case study.  The college which had put this major forward had an active public relations department, and a well run media studies program, either of which could have hosted social media.  Instead, it was decided this would be a stand-alone social media major that not only offered its own courses across the board, but also avoided offerings from the other two natural partners.  The result was a failed program that could neither retain majors nor train the ones it kept in useful skills or knowledge.

The solution for this mess was obvious immediately.  The social media program had to be closed down and grown back out from the beginning with a new set of assumptions.  Using the trivium to find a safe place for the major, the major would be on the grammar, logic, or rhetoric side of studies.  This could mean that it would study the technology of social media (grammar), the social understandings of social media (logic), or the use of social media as a persuasive tool (rhetoric).

Selfish Course Generation – This is a common mistake made in curriculum design.  Take four professors, one who teaches critical studies, the next casual studies, the next rhetorical studies, and the last one grammatical studies.  Ask them what courses a student needs to understand a field and they will often reply predictably by offering a course directly related to their own specialization.  The result is a program with a huge number of taxation courses and fewer pay data courses.  Selfish course generation has in fact become a death knell for the formerly popular communication major.  A public relations professional has a desperate need for a fairly stable set of skills.  Place three public relations professionals around the table and they tend to create curriculum that is highly effective and looks similar to programs created elsewhere.  When those public relations faculty have to share the major with a studies person, a journalist, and a production person, there is a possibility of a synergy where the major becomes stronger through the availability of key electives, but there is also a possibility of the major being bogged down by courses that act like a tax on the student’s educational time.  In the worst case, the number of public relation courses and their movement from entry-level to advanced understanding is interrupted by these taxation courses.  You no longer have a public relations major, but a general communication major with a lot of diverse but uncoordinated knowledge.  Interestedly, students tend to lead these programs for ones where the study is better focused.

Academic Prejudice – The largest center of academic prejudice is the social science (logic) centered practitioners against the grammar (art and technology) and rhetoric (persuasion) based practitioners. The concept of the liberal arts entered into the modern era fairly well understood, but with the rise of a technology driven society with 24-hour communication cycles, and the subsequent expansion of employment in these areas, liberal arts purists tend to strip practitioners specializing in areas outside of logic of their academic empowerment.  A technologist such as a sculptor, photographer, painter, or writer is granted lower class status on campus because they are closer to the blue-collar roots than the logic practitioners.  As a result the important area of studies can squeeze out the equally important areas of rhetoric and grammar even when the major is best centered on the other two legs of the liberal arts tripod.  Identifying this illness is easy, but since liberal arts is a buzz word it can be difficult to break through layers of cognitive dissonance to point out that a public relations student who only have a single public relations course may not be qualified to seek an entry level position in the industry.

Catalog Fluffing – A significant cause of low student moral is catalog fluffing.  A catalog queen is an elective course offered in the catalog but never taught.  Students see these courses and envision they could be the recipients of the course, but soon discover that few if any of the more exciting advanced courses will ever be taught while they are students in the college.