October 24, 1996

Arts programs reexamined

Daniel McCabe

If Dean of Arts Carman Miller has his way, most undergraduates in his faculty will soon be receiving a very different sort of education. Today, arts professors will vote on whether or not the changes Miller has in mind should get the green light.

The Faculty of Arts Council will be considering proposals made by a workgroup on curricular reform that spent much of the last year examining the faculty's majors programs. This workgroup, chaired by philosophy professor James McGilvray, recommended a profound redesign of the majors programs aimed at giving students the chance to get a grounding in more than one field of study. Miller enthusiastically backs these proposed changes.

McGilvray's workgroup suggested that all majors students be required to study at least two separate disciplines in some depth. A student could major in one subject and minor in another. Students could do two minors to accompany a major, or they could do two majors programs.

To accommodate these changes, majors programs would require only 36 credits instead of 54. A minors program would consist of 18 credits. The workgroup also called for the creation of what it calls "distribution courses." These courses would focus on the interrelationships between disciplines, and departments would pool their resources and expertise in order to create them.

McGilvray thinks that students currently in majors programs don't have much freedom to get a taste of other disciplines. "If a student is required to take 54 of his 90 credits in his own department, that offers him very little flexibility. He's essentially locked in his own department with little opportunity for exploring other fields.

The whole process of curriculum renewal was accelerated shortly after Miller became dean last year. Miller was concerned that majors and honours programs in the faculty were far too similar. As it stands, majors degrees require students to complete 54 credits in a discipline such as history or political science, while honours programs call for 60 completed credits. That the two programs differed by only six credits struck Miller as ridiculous because he firmly believes the programs should have very separate functions.

"To my mind, an honours degree is a pathway to graduate studies and the students who opt for honours degrees should intend to go on to do at least a master's," says Miller. "I believe we should be structuring the majors programs in such a way that they would offer students something fundamentally different from what the honours programs offer them. We should be presenting our students with two quite unique options for completing a BA."

"I think a majors program should accommodate as many of a student's interests as it possibly can," says McGilvray. "As it stands the system encourages students to make a one-time decision. They become sociology students or anthropology students and they usually can't explore something else in any meaningful way."

McGilvray believes the proposals could also benefit students who are interested in certain subject matters that involve more than one discipline. "McGill doesn't have a cognitive science department, for example, but a student could devise an education for herself along those lines by majoring in philosophy and doing minors in linguistics and psychology. Hopefully these departments would also be collaborating on distribution courses."

Miller makes no bones about the fact that he believes his faculty should have restructured its curriculum long ago. "I'm old enough to remember when the current curriculum was put in place about 25 years ago [when the CEGEP system was first established]. That we haven't thoroughly reexamined it for 25 years is remarkable."

The reaction to the proposed changes has been mixed, although Miller is confident that most depart-ments are in favour of implementing the workgroup's suggestions.

Some professors, particularly in departments that belong to both the Faculties of Arts and Science (such as computer science, mathematics and psychology), worry that a 36-credit major won't give students enough exposure to a discipline for them to master it in any substantial way.

In a recent McGill Tribune article Professor Luc Devroye, director of the School of Computer Science, said, "We have a very technologically advanced subject, a bit like medicine; you have to take courses in sequences. We have several layers and we have a hard time figuring out how people can get a degree in 36 credits."

Professors in some of the faculty's languages departments are also worried. They fret that they might not be able to teach students a completely new tongue and give them a sense of the traditions and literature related to that language in only 36 credits.

Karim Bardeesy, the vice-president (academic) of the Arts Undergraduate Society, has been canvassing student opinion in his faculty about the proposed changes.

He says that most students are enthusiastic about how the new majors programs would promote a more interdisciplinary approach to an arts degree. "Students are almost unanimous in supporting that," says Bardeesy.

But students wonder if a requirement to study at least two disciplines will lead to more over-crowded introductory courses.

Students in the Department of Psychology have a special concern. At a recent public forum organized by AUS to discuss the proposed changes, psychology student representative Josie Morello, reading from a prepared statement, said the proposed changes would "significantly undermine an excellent psychology program that is already in place." Psychology students who go on to become professional psychologists must become accredited in order to practise and the accreditation body requires at least 42 credits in psychology. In addition, many psychology students in the majors program still wish to pursue graduate studies (the department accepts very few students into its honours program) and they worry that 36 credits of psychology won't impress schools considering applicants for master's programs.

Miller stood his ground on his contention that honours programs were the proper route to graduate school. But he indicated that there could be solutions for dealing with the students' concerns. "We could create a special professional psychology program aimed specifically at students seeking to ensure enough credits for accreditation.

"We'll never create a foolproof system," Miller added. "The programs currently in place are 25 years old and we're constantly making adjustments. Nothing is ever etched in stone."

Miller says students are "facing a job market where the command of more than one body of knowledge is important and flexibility is required. These majors programs would give our students the breadth and flexibility that employers tell us they want to see in our graduates."

He says the new programs would also give younger faculty--who tend to be trained in a more interdisciplinary fashion--the academic elbow room they need to put their interdisciplinary skills to work. "Renewal is not simply about putting new bodies into old places."

Curriculum reform isn't likely to end with the majors programs. The workgroup suggested that the faculty take a closer look at its honours degrees as well. In addition, the freshman year (which all out-of-province students are required to take in lieu of CEGEP training) will be examined. Miller ponders the possibility of creating a unique arts degree aimed at preparing students for medical school.

Says Miller, "The fun is just beginning."