A Minor Option with Major Results
Issue   |   Tue, 02/13/2018 - 20:04

Last fall, the college’s Curriculum Committee published a draft report with recommendations and proposals for topics such as pass-fail, course withdrawals, first-year seminars and so forth. One of the most anticipated topics the committee was reviewing and considering was the introduction of minors. The report weighed the pros and cons, and while the committee agreed that introducing a minor would reduce the number of both double majors and majors in some of the larger departments, it expressed worry about the risk of relegating some departments to “secondary status.” In short, the minor might make some departments solely a “minoring department.” While this is certainly a fair concern to raise, as is their suggestion that departments should have control over whether to offer a minor, large departments should certainly take the initiative to develop academic minors to increase choice and academic exploration and also reduce stress.

In the current system, students mostly end up either double or single majoring. A common issue with the first option is losing academic flexibility to take classes outside a student’s comfort zone. If students then choose to have one major, many end up accumulating course credits in a second department with no official recognition. This puts students in an awkward situation where they feel compelled to complete a second major, but are also worried about missing out on unexplored topics and disciplines. The addition of minors would add another possibility that could potentially give some students the best of both worlds. Granted, the need to feel compensated by a “minor” for particular coursework is a sentiment that many advisors, professors and professionals characterize as unnecessary, but it is still something that affects how students go about deciding their majors. Whether advisors continue to dissuade students from loading their schedule with course requirements from too many majors or minors is their prerogative, as well as the college’s. The point remains that an academic minor doesn’t impede this mission. Actually, it might serve as a useful middle-ground.

Another dilemma the academic minor might ameliorate is that of study abroad. While many students would like to study abroad, often times juggling that desire, a thesis and two majors becomes very difficult. A minor might make these choices easier for students, or at the very least increase their options. By opening up the possibilities, the academic minor provides a balance to these goals in a way that relieves the stress students feel when trying to choose what road they want to take. Deciding between a thesis, a double major or study abroad can be especially cumbersome given that choosing can logistically disqualify you from another. This predicament tends to pressure students into deciding fairly quickly what their four years of college are going to look like, which defeats the purpose of the liberal arts. The minor might be a way for students to feel less conflict between exploration and expectations.

The committee’s recommendation to establish “joint majors” as a way to deal with these issues is laudable. Joint majors would combine two majors — say, biology and chemistry — into one (biochemistry). This would certainly help with some of the aforementioned issues, but seems to focus more on inter-STEM disciplines. It does little to help those that are interested in crossing STEM and the humanities, like double majors in history and physics.

Ultimately, departments, like Statistics or languages, where it makes sense to offer minors should consider taking steps to provide this additional choice for students. With that being said, important qualifications such as not allowing students to double minor are important to retaining a commitment to the liberal arts. Introducing minors where reasonable, however, seems to bring more good than bad. While academic minors certainly bring important considerations to the table, perhaps that is the minor’s greatest strength: it increases choices and possibilities, which in turn facilitates a balance between exploration and requirements.