Forgotten Departments?

by Marian Lurio | 5/1/14 6:06pm

I’d take a class in the humanities over one in the hard sciences any day. While the majority of the classes I’ve taken at Dartmouth fall under the “social sciences,” I have some regrets. For one, humanities departments often have lower numbers of students in classes. This seems ideal compared to my culminating class for one of my majors, which is capped at 30 students. But while the social sciences may have their drawbacks, many students in past years seem to be increasingly drawn to these academic disciplines.

At the College, economics, government, history and engineering sciences — mostly social sciences — were the most popular majors for the Class of 2013. The number of students graduating with major in the hard sciences over the past 10 years has remained steady. Fewer students are majoring in the humanities, while the social sciences have become increasingly popular. In relation, there have been fewer humanities full-time equivalent professors and more social science full-time equivalents since 2008.

What can account for this change? I spoke with a few professors in the humanities to get their take on these trends and whether they found them troubling. While they acknowledged the fluctuating number of humanities majors, these professors can rest assured that their departments will remain intact for at least the foreseeable future, given the College’s financial resources and declared liberal arts mission. Shifts away from the humanities toward the social sciences, however, have important implications for the quality of instruction, as well as the variety of courses offered by departments.

Spanish and Portuguese department chair Raul Bueno-Chavez said the level of interest and subsequent number of majors among departments within the humanities changes over the years according to sociopolitical issues.

“Russia used to matter 20 years ago when I came here, not anymore,” Bueno-Chavez said. “Now what matters is Chinese and Chinese culture, Japanese, Arabic language.”

Spanish and Portuguese professor Beatriz Pastor said approximately 1,900 students take one or more Spanish and Portuguese classes each year, roughly 600 more than those enrolled in classes in the second most popular romance language department, the French and Italian department.

High enrollment does not transfer into a high number of majors, Pastor said. This could result from proximity to Latin America, tourism and immigration of Spanish-speaking people into the U.S., Bueno-Chavez said.

The Spanish and Portuguese department has actively sought to attract more students to the major. Members of the department are spread thin, Pastor said, due to the number of off-campus programs offered by the department — students can study abroad programs in Barcelona, Santander, Cuzco, Salvador, Madrid and Buenos Aires — and high enrollment in the department’s courses each term.

Additional tenure-track professors in the department would allow it to take on the extra work needed to engage in creative thinking and programming to better address the problem of major numbers, she said. German studies professor Bruce Duncan emphasized that major and enrollment numbers in certain areas and departments fluctuate over the years. Just as the importance of certain languages changes, the high numbers of social science majors did not always exist, Duncan said.

Duncan attributes this to a larger national trend, with parents wanting their children to study employable disciplines. “Almost all our majors are double-majors, and they often say, ‘Well I’m doing one for my parents and one that I want to do,’” he said.

The German studies department has five majors this year, a relatively standard number for the department. Many students start taking language classes too late to pursue a major, Duncan said. Furthermore, the absence of German language programs in many American high schools today contributes to students realizing they might be interested in a major too late in their college careers, he said.

“One of the problems with a language department is that the prerequisites are so huge — to go on the FSP in Germany you need five terms of the language before you go, while there are other ones that don’t have a language component where you take a course or two and are ready to go,” Duncan said.

Across academia, departments worry about their enrollment numbers. Dartmouth has enough money to maintain programs it deems valuable for its liberal arts mission regardless of the department’s popularity, he said. Although some departments with many majors have a stronger argument for expanding their resources, the College recognizes that some fields, though they are valuable and may regain popularity in the future, will never be large, Duncan said.

Administrators do, of course, allocate tenure-track positions based in large part on factors such as the popularity of a department’s major, he said. Pastor said many non-tenure-track professors teach introductory level courses in her department, which may dissuade students from taking higher-level courses that focus on culture, not just language. Because programs like the Chinese program can only offer certain classes, including introductory level courses, during certain terms, those with no background or previous high school coursework in Chinese and other Asian and Middle Eastern Language and Literature programs may struggle to complete a major in the department, AMELL professor Sarah Allan said, which may account for low enrollment numbers.

This year, there are 11 students with majors in AMELL, a number which has remained relatively stable over recent years, except for last year when there were only two.

Tanya Budler ’15, a double-major in government and AMES, said it is difficult to obtain an AMELL major because courses are only offered during certain terms. The government department is more stable and straightforward, she said. However, though the government department provides more classes and professors, AMES has significant research and funding opportunities because not as many students use them, she said.

Oscar R. Cornejo Jr. ’17 came to Dartmouth intending to major in biology, but has found himself more interested in his Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies , Native American studies and sociology courses. One of his LALACS classes only had six other students, Cornejo said, and this intimate class setting allowed him to connect with his professor who will supervise his independent study next winter.

“We are fortunate to have this (LALACS) program on campus, and I only wish that other students would take advantage of the amazing professors and classes in this program,” he said.

However, due to the small scale of the program, Cornejo said it is hard to find classes on specific topics that he is most interested in studying. To show that interdisciplinary programs are important to the College, he said adminstrators should provide more funding and listen to the input of those interested in these programs so that department chairs can create classes these students want to take, Cornejo said.

Some students have not found that the humanities departments are under-resourced or negatively impacted by low enrollment numbers.

The renovation of the Hood Museum and the Visual Arts Center are evidence of the College’s continued commitment to the arts, Christine Kiernan ’15, an art history major, said.

Kiernan said she knew she wanted to continue studying art history since her first day in Art History 1, Introduction to the History of Art in the Ancient World and the Middle Ages, her freshman fall.

The small class sizes, the approachability of the professors and the opportunities provided, including foreign study programs, influenced her decision, Kiernan said.

“I also honestly enjoy the subject — I’m enthralled during class and enjoy my readings,” Kiernan said. “I wanted my major to be something I truly appreciated on a personal level.”

As long as a student seeks variety in their non-major classes, the major they choose should not limit their employability, Kiernan said.

Having taken four years of Latin classes before Dartmouth, Jennifer Joo ’17, who plans to be pre-med, was interested in the classics major. The staff, faculty and students within the department only made this decision easier for Joo.

“Since there is no specific pre-med major, I knew that I could major in whatever I wanted and still be on the pre-health track,” she said.

As Dartmouth professors across departments are dedicated to their subject and are generally invested in their students, smaller enrollment and major numbers in certain departments allow students to find their place in a department, Joo said.

Devika Bodas ’15 said that her upper-level courses for the classics major are often as small as 10 students. This setting is conducive to collaborative learning, and students are less hesitant to speak up and ask questions, she said.

“Classics 1 is structured to cultivate an interest in ancient cultures while showing the relevance of the pursuit — inviting you to take another class,” Bodas said.

Bodas has found that other introductory courses in hard and social sciences are made to “weed people out,” while her experience with classics seemed “much more in the spirit of the Dartmouth commitment to intellectual curiosity and a liberal arts education,” she said.

The greatest strength of Dartmouth is not that it has an excellent engineering program or a medical school, Pastor said. The difference between Dartmouth and a science-oriented school is the liberal arts education that makes a Dartmouth education so unique — the philosophy that faculty provide students with a complex world view that is going to allow them to deal effectively and creatively with the complexities of a globalized world, she said.

The humanities are essential for a liberal arts education but in strictly economic terms, it is difficult for humanities departments to compete with science departments, which bring an institution like Dartmouth a large amount of money in a short period of time through large grants.

“In the humanities it’s really difficult to get big grants because there aren’t that many to go around whereas in the sciences they’re part of the trade,” she said.

Channeling resources and students toward the humanities brings long-term benefits, Pastor said.

“They have to do more with the fact that people who have been trained at a very high level at a liberal arts institution like Dartmouth will eventually in many cases end up occupying important leadership positions that are going to benefit the institution as well as the country,” she said.

Despite the issues humanities departments may face, the College still at least seems to be maintaining its commitment to its liberal arts mission. And, luckily for students and scholars in what are today considered obscure fields, most of the professors I spoke with emphasized that what is seen as important today may not be important in a few decades. Humanities, the study of human culture, on the other hand will always be somewhat important as society continues to evolve, shift and grow.