Step 36: Define “Department”, “Program”, and “Major”

Oxy just had their winter faculty retreat, in which the two main topics were discussion were the content and structure of the shared freshmen sequence, and the creation of a Black Studies program. Both conversations made me think about the task of starting a computer science department and creating computer science majors – but more importantly, what it really means to be a “department” or a “program”, or even what it means for students to “major” in something, which is what I want to explore today.

These thoughts were actually a long time coming. One of my earlier posts mentioned in passing that I’m not sure what it means to major in something, an uncertainty I still hold. From a faculty perspective, defining a major is perhaps not difficult: pull together twelve classes which all relate to the discipline, make sure it generally fits what other colleges require, and that’s really it. (I’m speaking in jest, but less jest than it might seem.) For a student, though, I can’t help but think that a major is just a convenient label for what they know, but where a lot of detail is hidden.

Take, for example, my own undergraduate career. It would not be inaccurate to describe me as a computer science major – that is after all the degree I received. But that description would leave out my engineering design work, as well my the not insignificant number of courses I took in psychology, cognitive science, and education (seven courses total). I thought about minoring in psychology, but decided instead to just take the courses instead, as I didn’t want to fulfill the requirement of junior seminars and so on.

I kept some of this in mind when I rethought the computer science curriculum – this is partially why the introductory courses try to make students independently capable of writing programs, because I know many of them would not become computer science majors (or minors). Although I do not yet have advisees, I know that some of my colleagues advise students to do exactly that – take courses that interest them, and don’t worry too much about the academic institution of majors and minors. Even though it would skew enrollment statistics, I certainly agree with this approach to college courses.

At the larger scale, I think this also applies to college departments/programs. As the speaker for the faculty retreat suggested, whether it’s a black studies “program” or a black studies “department” is really five conversations in one. One of those conversations is about college resources (ie. money), and whether there is an allocated amount to spend on speakers, events, etc. A related, but slightly separate, conversation is about tenured faculty lines. At Oxy, for example, it turns out that a program becomes a department when the first tenure-track faculty is hired in that discipline; this was apparently done on accident for cognitive science, which is why we are now a department. A third conversation may be about requirements for a major, or whether it’s a major at all or simply a concentration; and a fourth conversation may be about the cohesion of the faculty. Finally, there’s also the question of how new faculty should be evaluated, especially if there are not already exiting faculty who understand the new department/program.

To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what rights and responsibilities a department is entitled to. Computer science at Oxy is just starting to think about these issues, and at least for me it’s useful to know what can be accomplished separately from whether we’re a department, and which requires a department first. I do know that establishing a major does not require a department, even though the faculty are then in the awkward position of explaining their appointment (as I often do when introducing myself). I am still fuzzy on whether I should ask for funds from math (which technically houses the computer science program) or from cognitive science (which I am technically part of), and more personally, the composition of my tenure review committee is something of a puzzle. Some of this I will eventually figure out, but I suspect others (like the funding situation) will require collaboration between departments as well as from the administration.

The last thing I will say is that, because establishing a major and establishing a department does not occur simultaneously, one of the issues we are facing right now is deciding which should be the priority, and how we should go about achieving that goal. The major obstacle at this point is the faculty: since there are insufficiently many computer scientists at Oxy, it would be difficult to evaluation tenure cases of new computer science faculty. At the same time, trying to hire faculty who can teach, and is dedicated to, computer science, while feeling comfortable in another department, may significantly limit the applicant pool. There is of course the possibility of making a senior hire to more directly establish a department, but there are other (administrative) reasons that this may not be desirable.

If there is any moral to this post, it’s that even academia is sometimes bogged down by issues of naming. I suppose the only takeaway is that students should simply pursue whatever interests them, whether it could turn into a major/minor or not, and whether it’s offered by a department/program or not. While these decisions may loom over the faculty (at least, they loom over me), they only have an indirect effect on the lives of students – if they have any effect at all.

Step 36: Define “Department”, “Program”, and “Major”

One thought on “Step 36: Define “Department”, “Program”, and “Major”

  1. […] Strangely, I am the most anxious about advising students on how to continue with computer science. On one hand, as a faculty trying to build a new department, I want more computer science minors to show demand. On the other hand, I think my target student population for introductory computer science courses is exactly students who would not become minors or majors. I would rather see arts, history, and biology majors doing computational work in their fields than see them switch to computer science. I often end up telling students to forget about minor requirements and just taking whatever classes interest them (a strategy I have mentioned before). […]


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