Sunlit Water

June 1, 2009

Major Minority

Filed under: Academia,Personal — by teofilo @ 9:35 pm

In the course of my job, I get asked a lot of personal questions about my background, education, future plans, etc.  I find this one of the most unpleasant aspects of the job, but I don’t have a whole lot of choice about how to deal with it so I just go ahead and answer.  By now I have a whole series of stock answers to the most common questions.

One of the most frequent questions I get along these lines is about my academic background.  This often comes after a tour, when people seem to be sufficiently impressed by my knowledge of Chaco to ask if I studied archaeology or anthropology in school or, more generally, what I majored in.  When I tell them I majored in linguistics and that I learned pretty much everything I know about Chaco in the course of working at the park, they are often stunned.  More than once I’ve heard people exclaim “I thought this was your dissertation!”  (No, it’s my job.  When you do something full-time for months you learn how to do it well.)

I also get questions about my future plans, and when I answer that I’m going to grad school for city planning in the fall people are often just as surprised, but interestingly they quite frequently grasp the connection and how my work here is actually quite relevant to my future studies and career.

All of these reactions serve to constantly remind me of something that I’ve noticed ever since I graduated from college, which is that my perspective on what majors and undergraduate education in general are about is quite unusual and, to a huge segment of the general public in this country, so alien as to be fundamentally unintelligible.

Basically, I see undergrad as a time to experiment with learning things that seem interesting without worrying about what practical application they will have to one’s future career or life, and this experimentation extends even to big decisions like choice of major.  I don’t think majoring in something in undergrad necessarily indicates any interest in that subject beyond the prospect of learning about it for four years.  Certainly my choice of linguistics as a major was never affected at all by any intention of doing anything more with it; I didn’t count out the possibility until very near the end of my college career, but I never considered it any more likely than any number of other possible career paths.  I majored in linguistics because I wanted to study linguistics.  Four years was enough.  (In retrospect maybe too much, but that’s another story.  I’m not without regrets.)

The main influence on my thinking on this issue was surely my parents’ attitude, which was quite similar and probably shaped largely by the fact that they both went to St. John’s College, probably the college that provides the least practical education that it is possible to get in this country.  The whole time I was growing up the refrain was always that your undergraduate major didn’t matter, and that you could do all sorts of things with a wide variety of majors.  This is by no means an attitude unique to my family, of course.  It was shared by many other people in our social circles, and it appears in a lot of college advice books where it generally takes the form of “don’t freak out too much over the decision about what to major in.”

The implicit idea behind a lot of this advice, I think, is that for a lot of career fields, particularly professional career fields, a graduate degree is becoming more and more of a necessity anyway, so the really crucial decision is what to study in grad school.  In many cases, the only important thing about a bachelor’s degree is having one.  It doesn’t matter what it’s in.  It makes sense, then, to study what you want to in undergrad, and save the career-determining decisions for later.

This is not how most people think about this issue.  Even when I was an undergrad I noticed how career-oriented a lot of my fellow classmates were, and how many of them seemed to be majoring in fields that they didn’t particularly like studying so that they would be prepared for good (i.e., lucrative) jobs when they graduated.  I always thought of this as a remarkable dismal and impoverished way to approach school, but I’ve since learned that it’s much more common than my perspective.

This is not without reason.  For one thing, it isn’t really true that your undergraduate major doesn’t matter.  There are still quite a few fields, mostly more technical ones like engineering, where a bachelor’s is enough to get a good job, provided it’s a bachelor’s with the right specialization.  Even in many other fields, a bachelor’s in a relevant subject or at least significant related coursework is a prerequisite for entrance to graduate school.  There are still plenty of other fields where graduate programs don’t have such requirements, but even there having a related undergraduate degree doesn’t hurt and usually helps when it comes to admittance decisions.

Beyond that, though, there’s really just a very widespread perception that college is for job training, that one’s undergraduate major represents the career field one intends to go into at the time of making the decision, and that any change in career field after graduation represents either an inability to find a job in the chosen field or a change of heart about what field to go into.  People tend to see my background in these terms: they think I initially wanted to be a linguist, so I majored in linguistics, but then for whatever reason I ended up working in this job instead, so presumably I’ll either keep doing this or go to grad school in a related field such as archaeology and go from there.  When I tell them that I’m making yet another change with my choice of grad school discipline, they often seem to be literally unable to understand my decision.  It apparently seems like yet another change of plans (and so soon!), inexplicable in terms of my past background.

As I said before, many people don’t see it that way and can see how this job is relevant to my future, but those are often the people who haven’t asked about my undergraduate background and probably assume that it was something related to either archaeology or planning, so there’s some presumed continuity there.

This all seems as alien to me as my decisions apparently seem to them.  There’s no radical change of heart in my educational or career background.  I didn’t have a firm sense as an undergrad of what exactly I wanted to do, and certainly working at a national park was never really something that occurred to me, but majoring in linguistics, working somewhere doing something unrelated to linguistics for a little while, then going to grad school in planning was one possibility in my mind from the time that I first stumbled upon the field of planning and began to think it might be for me.  I wouldn’t say I’m doing exactly what I planned to do, since I didn’t plan to do anything in particular, but I’m certainly not doing anything I planned to not do.  To me my life seems to be right on track.

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1 Comment »

  1. You did *something* with linguistics this week.

    All kidding aside, I totally agree with you about undergrad majors. For me, my five years at CU were spent learning how to learn, how to communicate well (especially in writing), how to be a responsible adult, and how to think critically. Without these four skills, it’s hard for me to imagine what kind of job and, by extension, life someone could have. I realize that a great majority of people in the US don’t get BAs, but I also know that I wouldn’t trade places with them for the most part.

    All studies in education show that advanced degrees have no effect on the quality of classroom instruction. I thought about this a lot this spring when debating whether or not to apply to grad school for a master’s in education. The point is that there are some professions where on the job experience, personal study, and perhaps a certain je ne sais quoi are what make a person competent and successful. Teaching is an example of this, as is, I suppose, being a park ranger.

    Comment by Meredith — June 28, 2009 @ 12:17 am |Reply


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