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2012 Winter Issue 6 (February 17, 2012)

Seatbelts and safety nets

February 17, 2012
By Stuart Urback

“You only get mad at a seatbelt when you’re not getting into an accident.”  It’s a great metaphor for the major, and I think it’s one that’s worth exploring further. 

Let’s expand the metaphor a bit.  A seatbelt is something you wear in a car.  It protects you by restricting your movement as you move at high speeds from place to place. Carleton is a bit like a speeding car, we’re all trying to juggle too many responsibilities at once; safety is a good thing.  But while you’re inside the car, you’re not trying to accomplish all that much, you’re simply trying to get to the destination where you can actually do something. 

But does the profile work?  Carleton certainly isn’t a car.  As a college culture we are in fact constantly growing, innovating, and challenging preconceptions.

The model of the department major succeeds because it gives students a definite structure to work within.  The argument is that this restriction gives students a system of support, encouragement, and lens with which to look at the world. And it does.

This works especially well in a pre-Internet world.  Specialization in a discipline is desirable because companies, schools, and other institutions can have an idea of what types of things the student could produce based on their major.  College often prevents students from building a diverse portfolio, we’re simply too busy.
In a world with the Internet, things are slightly different.  Big projects and departments are getting slashed left and right as small teams can accomplish tasks much more efficiently.  Everyone has a portfolio.  There are 80 year old grandmothers playing Call of Duty.  Businesses are accepting World of Warcraft guild leadership as a legitimate resume item. 

Everyone is producing. Having a “proper” major is not as important as it was.  Institutions care far more about what you’ve accomplished.  An art major who has worked with an investment firm is much more desirable than an econ major.

This is incredibly empowering.  Your accomplishments matter much more than your titles.  And those small projects you work on become a lot more important.  Because it’s about you, and what you can do.  In this world, majors simply don’t matter the way they used to.  We’re strapping on seatbelts without a car to take us places.

What we really need is a safety net.  A system that allows us to take risks, to create, and to innovate.  That way we can walk the tightrope and leap, but when we fall it would protect us, without the restriction.
How would a system like this work?

I can see a system with two options.

Option 1: An easier method to getting a special major approved.  One good idea I’ve heard is to allow all past special majors to be reused by current students.  Basically we just need to make it easier for students to apply for and get special majors. 

Option 2: Department as home base.  Rather than being stuck within a single department, a student would choose the department they were interested in and then being able to substitute classes within the major depending on their own philosophy or idea.  The substitute would require approval of course, but it would be a much less invasive way to accomplish the task of releasing students from a single department. 

There are plenty of different ideas that could work:  Student could group together to create a major with an associated comps in tandem.  Students could organically develop majors through their time and defend them at the end of their experience.  Students could develop projects and base the classes they take.

The point is this, the potential of the people at Carleton College is immense.  We need to find a way to unlock the potential of students without disrupting the powerful structure that support student growth.

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