Faculty Beat: Minors? At Reed?

On December 3, 2018, the Reed faculty held their monthly meeting in Vollum Lounge. As was fitting for the last meeting of the semester, the docket was short. Nonetheless, members of the Committee on Academic Policy and Planning (CAPP) led a contentious preliminary discussion about the possibility of Reed offering minors, prompting debate on the philosophy of Reed’s educational program and the meaning of a liberal arts education.

After passing small changes to degree requirements for the French and environmental studies major programs, CAPP introduced the idea of Reed offering minors to the floor for preliminary discussion, trying to gauge faculty attitudes. Having a system for “minoring” in a department would allow students to demonstrate their proficiency in a second major on their transcripts, making them more marketable.

However, several faculty members took issue with the proposal. Some challenged the proposal on pragmatic grounds. One faculty member from the religion department objected that this change could encourage students to stick to one or two departments, and reduce breadth in their course choice. Another faculty member from the French department responded by pointing out that Reed already has broad group requirements that demand students take many classes outside of their major or division. Later, a computer science faculty member raised the concern that a minors system might put pressures on certain departments — math and computer science included — which might not be able to offer a minor due to staffing issues. On the other hand, it is also possible that the addition of minors would lessen pressure on certain departments by encouraging students who would otherwise major in that department to minor in it instead.

Others raised broader philosophical issues against minors at Reed. For example, one faculty member suggested that a minors system goes against the philosophy of a liberal arts education, as it encourages students to narrow their interests in order to receive a arbitrary reward. Building off of this, another faculty member was concerned that minors might just seem like “Girl Scout badges,” pigeonholing students into classes just so they can feel a sense of accomplishment when they read their diploma. However, other faculty members found this narrative patronizing, instead emphasizing that Reed students are legal adults and, as such, should be given full control over how they want to structure their education. Indeed, many faculty members seemed to agree that the college has a duty to recognize the pragmatic benefits of making students more marketable, rather than being beholden to purely philosophical arguments about the “Reed education” or what it means to be a “liberal arts” school.

In fact, many faculty who expressed support for the idea of minors did so because of their concerns over students who attempt interdisciplinary majors. “It takes a very special type of student to pull off an interdisciplinary thesis,” one faculty member said, and minors could allow students who have interdisciplinary interests to explore those interests without having to commit themselves to an interdisciplinary major. For example, students interested in art therapy could major in art or psychology and minor in the other.

Ultimately, CAPP only brought the topic of minors up for general discussion, and did not have any form of proposition for the faculty to vote on. There are still many details to be worked out before this happens; namely, CAPP has to decide how much authority they would give to individual departments in instituting their own minor programs, and how much work a student will have to put in to receive a minor. One faculty member requested that CAPP conduct research into minors at schools similar to Reed, such as Bowdoin and Swarthmore, to see the effect of minors on student schedules and departmental labor loads. While some faculty hope that a minor system could be voted on and ready to go by the upcoming academic year, at the same time as the new group distribution system, it is going to take a lot of legislative work and debate before faculty agree on a minors system.