A 'major' dispute

A 'major' dispute McGill University

| Skip to search Skip to navigation Skip to page content

User Tools (skip):

Sign in | Sunday, August 30, 2015
Sister Sites: McGill website | myMcGill

McGill Reporter
December 13, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 07
| Help
Page Options (skip): Larger

A 'major' dispute

What's in a name, Juliet wondered aloud, as her Romeo scurried around her garden, desperate for a glimpse of the girl who had just captured his heart.

Some arts and science professors may be harbouring less affectionate thoughts about one another after wrestling with a "what's in a name" conundrum of their own during last week's Senate meeting.

At issue was a proposal to formally change the title of the chief component of an undergraduate arts degree from "major concentration" to "major." For a few years now, both terms have been used for arts students, depending on when they began their studies.

When the Faculty of Arts introduced its multi-track system for undergraduate programs a few years ago, the idea was to ensure that students became well versed in at least two subjects -- history and East Asian studies, for example -- instead of spending all their time steeped in only one discipline.

Students would require fewer credits for a major, but they would be obliged to do at least one minor in another subject.

Arts students who began their degrees prior to the introduction of the multi-track system continued to do a major in one subject, while students who arrived later did a major concentration.

Now that most of the pre-multi-track students have completed or are completing their BAs, Associate Vice-Principal (Academic) Nicolas de Takacsy suggested that the time was right to do away with the term "major concentration" altogether, as it was never intended to be used permanently. He stated that the Faculty of Arts wanted to use the word major instead, "a shorter, pithier term that loses nothing in its meaning."

Senators from the Faculty of Science were quick to disagree.

Mathematics and statistics professor Georg Schmidt said the use of the word major for an arts degree in the new multi-track system was problematic. In the Faculty of Science, students have to successfully complete 54 credits' worth of courses to gain their degree, Schmidt pointed out. In arts, with the multi-track approach, students need only 36 credits for their major.

Schmidt says such an arrangement is unfair to science students in departments where students are able to do either a BA or a BSc -- geography, psychology, computer science, and mathematics and statistics, for instance. The science students would have to delve more deeply into their respective disciplines than would the arts students "rubbing shoulders with them in many of their courses."

Associate Dean of Science Morton Mendelson agreed. "The students who graduate from science with a major in geography or psychology shouldn't have their degrees confused with [an arts degree] with a very different structure." Mendelson believes that the University should come up with some sort of standard for what constitutes a major that can be applied across the board.

Management student Andreas Friedman related how management students can major in a subject with as few as 30 credits. He suggested that it should be up to each faculty to determine what constitutes a major.

English professor Kerry McSweeney said that there were any number of factors that determined the quality of a university education apart from the quantity of credits a student takes in a certain discipline -- the coherence of a program, the abilities of teachers, the quality of fellow students... He argued that a McGill arts degree compares quite favourably with arts programs at other leading North American universities and stated it was "uncollegial and ungenerous" for science professors to raise concerns about how his faculty settled on the requirements for a major in arts.

Microbiology and immunology professor Malcolm Baines worried that too much variation in the requirements needed for a major in different faculties leads to "confusion about the merits of different programs."

He mused that his own department, which requires 67 credits for a major, might well be too stringent. He believes the University should establish standards for what constitutes a major that would apply widely. Baines noted that a McGill subcommittee on new and revised courses and programs had settled on 54 credits as being appropriate for a major.

Linguistics professor Lydia White observed that Senate had just heard about majors at McGill ranging from 30 credits to 67 and that such variations were likely related to the very different natures of the disciplines taught at McGill. "In trying to pin [the requirements for a major] down, we might do more damage than good."

Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger concurred. "In the liberal arts, it might be quite proper that we want more breadth, that we want [our undergraduates' studies] to be more spread out."

He added that the debate was a little academic. Outside of the University, potential employers would either "scratch their heads wondering what a 'major concentration' was or just assume it's the same thing as a major."

Mathematics and statistics professor Kohur GowriSankaran argued that while it might be appropriate for professional programs to set different credit requirements for their majors, there ought to be some uniformity in the requirements for a major in McGill's two largest faculties.

History professor Suzanne Morton said that majors at other universities, including the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, vary quite substantially in the number of credits they require. She said she was "surprised this subject is causing any confusion."

Student senator Julia Finkelstein, a psychology student in the Faculty of Science, argued against de Takacsy's motion. She stated that it wasn't proper that a science student in a department such as hers would have to take more courses in psychology than would a counterpart from arts, in order to attain a degree that might seem roughly equivalent in the eyes of a prospective employer.

Political science professor Sam Noumoff stated,"Our friends in the Faculty of Science seem to presume that everyone is illiterate." Noumoff thinks that graduate schools and employers are capable of differentiating between different sorts of degrees and that it's "disrespectful" for one faculty to tell another faculty what ought to constitute a major.

Remarkably, when the matter was called to a vote, the result was a dead tie.

Dean of Engineering John Gruzleski, serving as chair in the absence of Principal Bernard Shapiro, cast the deciding vote. He voted "with regret" against de Takacsy's motion, reasoning that a tie vote was essentially the same thing as a vote against the motion since the majority of senators didn't support the position of the Faculty of Arts in this matter.

Professor McSweeney rose again, this time to present the report of the University Bookstore Committee.

McSweeney was sharply critical in his presentation last year, singling out Chapters -- which then managed the McGill Bookstore -- for badly mishandling the ordering of textbooks required for McGill courses. The problem was compounded by the barbed nature of the relationship between Chapters and many publishers. Accusing Chapters of unfair practices, publishers took out their frustrations by refusing to supply the McGill store with important texts.

This year, with the bookstore now being overseen by Barnes and Noble, McSweeney was guardedly optimistic. "I am confident that the melodrama and fireworks [are over]. Senate will have to look elsewhere on the agenda for its entertainment."

McSweeney noted that Barnes and Noble are old hands at managing university bookstores compared to Chapters, "which lacked any sense of how to run a university bookstore."

Law professor Richard Janda suggested that the bookstore still needs some improving. He called for a greater range of selection in the titles available at the store.

McSweeney said that the bookstore's new management welcomes suggestions from the academic community.

view sidebar content | back to top of page

Search