Many students at Southern Methodist University complete double majors, and from last spring onward, faculty members have engaged in a number of discussions on how to foster the best possible academic experience for such students, in line with the 2012 Vanderbilt University report on Double Majors: Influences, Identities and Impacts. SMU faculty's interest in double majors is in part motivated by SMU's recent report Continuing the Ascent: Recommendations for Enhancing the Academic Quality and Stature of Southern Methodist University.
SMU faculty held a townhall meeting on the topic in June, and a number of suggestions have been brought forward to enhance the experience of double majors (or triple majors or double minors) this semester. According to the report, little is done at most universities to help students integrate their two majors. Our focus is on providing students with the tools to integrate their multiple majors and minors across disciplines, thereby enriching their academic experience. Some students have also been very proactive in seeking undergraduate research experiences that allow them to use their dual expertise. For instance, this semester I took into my research group a senior student who is majoring in management science and minoring in sociology, and we are interested in investigating the opioid addiction crisis in the U.S. both from qualitative and quantitative perspectives.
This weekend I finally got around to reading the Vanderbilt report, which holds particular interest for me since I would have double majored in arts and engineering if the option had been available when I was in college (unfortunately, I studied in a French engineering school, which as its name indicates, only educates students in engineering). The report is worth reading in its entirety, but here are its main recommendations:
- "Students should be encouraged to reflect on how their two majors reinforce one another intellectually and practically."
- "Institutions should proactively consider ways to help students integrate and synthesize across majors." ("Double majoring is one of the most important curricular "innovations" in the last few decades. But this change in curricula has been entirely 'user-driven'; most schools have neither encouraged nor discouraged double majoring. Rather, they have stood off to the side while students make decisions that significantly affect their college experience.") The report recommend that schools consider supporting senior capstone projects "that require students to integrate across disciplines," to be "supervised jointly by faculty in each of the student's home majors."
- "Faculty should explicitly encourage students to provide the perspective of their other major."
- Universities should "promote hypo (spanning) rather than hyper (specializing) double majors." For instance, science majors should be encouraged to consider a second major in the arts or humanities.
- "Students should be more intentional about the possible benefits of double majoring and, perhaps, should be introduced to strategies and tactics early on."
- Students should develop "the rhetorical ability to tell a compelling story about one's educational pathway."
- Universities should "consider and mitigate the negative effects of the over-scheduled students", perhaps by promoting "Maymesters" and January terms.
- "Institutions should consider the relative advantages of disadvantages of the minor versus the major" and "explore the benefits of academic certificates in varied interdisciplinary topics like entrepreneurship studies... or arts administration."
Fascinatingly enough, SMU already does a lot of those things (many majors in the Meadows School of the Arts, for instance, also have another major), but there is always room for improvement and more proactive thinking, especially regarding Recommendations 1 to 3.
While double majoring enriches student experience, some have found the trend worrying, for instance in this underwhelming Chronicle of Higher Education blog post , where the author quotes the provost of Susquehanna University who argues that students "operate under the assumption employers are impressed by double majors" (I would argue instead that many students have a broad range of interests they seek to explore, although perhaps their parents believe that employers are impressed, and they would have a point, as students go above and beyond what would be expected of them for an academically successful undergraduate experience, which is to graduate with one Bachelor degree, preferably in less than six years) and that such students indulge in double majoring because the increasing cost of college leads them, in the blog author's words, "to get as much out of the experience as possible".
Also, the author openly wonders "if the core curriculum and individual majors are demanding enough, considering that more students, especially at selective colleges, are able to take on second majors." This would only be true if more and more students are able to take an overload of courses each semester (typically over eighteen credits) in order to cram more courses into their schedule, but the author offers no data about anything of the sort, only musings.
To me the real issue is that in order to complete a double major in four years, a student usually needs to come in with advanced placement credits, which makes double majoring disproportionately available to students from better high schools who were able to take such AP credits. (There is nothing wrong with taking more than four years to complete a double major, but this costs more, and students who don't come from the better high schools are even less likely to be able to afford that.) The Vanderbilt report itself found that 19 percent of students at 9 elite institutions were double majors, vs 9 percent at US colleges overall.
This risks turning undergraduate education into an arms race where undergraduate students from better high school districts, which might mean families living in wealthier neighborhoods due to the way high school funding works in the U.S., distinguish themselves from other students who weren't born with the same advantages through factors that have little to do with their own innate abilities. But plenty of students from wealthy families also coast their way through college and fail plenty of courses in their one and only major. It would be interesting to come up with a financial aid solution that would allow all students who so wish to pursue a double major and complete it within a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable financial burden.
Double majors show a breadth of interest that is commendable. In the words of a 2013 Boston University blog post, "undergrads who study multiple disciplines in depth are training their brains to analyze information in different, complementary ways... [D]ouble majors often apply knowledge and approaches learned in one major to their work in the other major—thus strengthening their integrative and creative thinking skills."
How can professors best support such students in their quest for knowledge? Implementing the recommendations of the Vanderbilt report at the faculty level will be made easier if faculty members in one major are cognizant of the benefits of another popular, complementary major, to best help students who are double majors. This can be promoted in a variety of ways, including small steps such as sitting in the seminar series of another department, and bigger steps such as teaching collaborations and joint supervision of capstone projects. The students are not the only ones who would benefit from a double-major approach to higher education. Their professors' skill set would be enriched as well.