Voice criticism about your majors before graduation
Published: Monday, February 13, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 03:02
At Brandeis, we all need to major in something. Sure, majors have their merits. If you choose a good one, you can get a job in a specialized industry. You can apply to graduate school. From a philosophical perspective, you can add some meaningful focus to your college education.
If you're into striving for a balance of breadth and depth in your life, your major was probably a great experience.
But I'm not so sure I've benefited as much as some others from choosing my major. At this point, with fewer than 100 days until graduation, I've finally realized that you just can't have it all with 128 credits, even from a liberal arts institution like Brandeis. To add to the trouble, many of us have continually found it frustrating to work within the confines of things like major requirements and the bureaucracy of academic departments. They claim to have our best interests in mind when it comes to developing our particular knowledge about a subject.
But as someone who is always skeptical of institutions, I've decided to see if it really works. Are Brandeis students actually satisfied with their experiences in the majors they chose?
Let's not underestimate how loaded this question is. In my quest to find the answer, I've collected some data from more than 60 Brandeis seniors, who have majored in a wide variety of subjects, to try to understand how they generally feel about their major, their department and their personal decision regarding their major.
The responses I obtained are solely based on the data I collected and not on my own opinion whatsoever.
Additionally, my informal survey should not be confused with Brandeis' own institutional research, which I've studied and will refer to later. I found that with six or seven semesters gone, Brandeis seniors have excellent insight into their particular fields of study. They certainly have much to say about the bureaucratic experience as well about the experience of working with different Brandeis professors.
I'll cut to the chase: Of those who responded to my survey, 39.7 percent of Brandeis seniors are satisfied with their major and 31.7 percent are extremely satisfied with their major.
This means 71.4 percent of those seniors surveyed in total are at least satisfied with their major. Similarly, 71.4 percent—though not the same satisfied 71.4 percent—indicated that they would not have chosen a different major, while 28.6 percent would have majored in something else.
Seems like a lot of good news—until we look at the picture through a new frame. From a five-point scale, the mean satisfaction with one's major was 3.86, with 5 being most satisfied. Of course, these responses do not represent every individual that majors in these subjects, nor does it indicate a universal criticism of the department. The data is based solely on those that responded to the survey.
In 2008, Brandeis' institutional research team used the same scale of satisfaction I used to discover that the mean satisfaction of seniors with their primary major was 4.29. Rather than trust the face value of this mean, I looked into some of the responses I got from the lowest-rated majors.
Politics received an average score of 2.9. Some students enjoyed the broad and independent nature of course offerings. Other, more critical respondents pointed to the mixed quality of professors, the arbitrary requirements and the limited diversity in course offerings from year to year.
Psychology received an average score of 2.5. The statistic may appear rather distressing, but the level of dissatisfaction as expressed by the respondents overall seems not to deter, with 244 undergraduate students and 17 faculty members involved in the major. One Psychology student's response pointed out the research-heavy nature of the department and suggested that two tracks, one for research and one for the study of developmental and social psychology, be implemented.
Mathematics and Chemistry also fell toward the bottom of the scale, with scores of 2 and 2.5 respectively. These majors are significantly smaller: Mathematics has 107 undergraduates and 15 faculty members and Chemistry has 40 students and 16 faculty members. Mathematics students wanted less abstraction, more real world application and more engaging professors. Chemistry students likewise suggested that faculty try better to engage undergraduates.
Overall, all of the responses I received contained impressively well thought-out criticisms. I chose to highlight the majors that received the most criticism according to the survey, not to call them out or demonize them, but to point to places where students themselves suggest that constructive change can happen. While this data is only representative of the information I received from the survey, these students still have valid suggestions to repair the things that upset them.
This in itself shows the capability of Brandeis students to assess the institutions in which they work.
Majors and departments should never hesitate to ask seniors—people who are clearly eager to channel their education in a productive way—what succeeded and what failed in the education they got. Seniors, too, should feel free to express their feelings to their major's administration, especially if you suspect your major falls below the 3.86 average.
Hey, you never know—maybe we can make some headway in challenging the academic bureaucracy that forced us to channel the scope of our liberal arts education in the first place.
Voicing constructive criticism about our particularly flawed experiences will hopefully shed light on matters Brandeis should be taking seriously. But I'll save that for another column.