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Double or Triple Major Madness

February 12, 2009

Why do so many Oberlin students double or triple major? I really want to know. Some people in the faculty and administration see our major madness as a problem; they believe students have a hard enough time focusing as it is. I'm not sure what to think, but have a couple of hypotheses. It'd be great if you could help me out here with some solid anecdotal evidence based on your own experience or on the experience of people around you.

Hypothesis 1: Obies simply have many interests and talents, and don't see any reason to privilege one over the other.

Hypothesis 2: It's all about being cool. We're an intellectual campus: The more majors, the higher your social status.

Hypothesis 3: It's easy, it's fun. Most programs allow double or triple dipping on courses. So why not pile the majors on? (You might wonder why most programs allow for all that dipping. The answer is simple: it's in departments' interest to have a high number of majors. More majors means more resources. Students get to double-dip their courses; we get to double-count the students.)

Hypothesis 4: Major requirements are largely defined by faculty who are out of touch with students' needs. Students tend not to think in terms of academic disciplines, and yet most majors still reflect the traditional 19th-century disciplinary model. As a student, the only way to blaze a meaningful trail through the course catalog is to take a couple of those clunky old-fashioned major structures and cobble together something that works for you. (In this scenario, most students would prefer to do an Individual Major if there weren't so many hoops to jump through.)

So what's really going on? For those of you who double or triple major, how do you see your majors relating to each other? Do they reflect different sides of yourself? Do they in fact form an integrated whole that makes complete sense to you, given who you are and what you want to do in life?

Should we make it harder for students to have more than one major? The College of Arts & Sciences currently offers 50 academic majors and 42 minors and areas of concentration. Is that too many for a college our size? Too few? Should we abolish majors altogether?

Postscript (March 2013): An interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed on a study finding that "Double Major Produce Dynamic Thinkers."

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Responses to this Entry

Students have a number of diverse interests. That, combined with the fact that it's not particularly difficult to do more than one major, probably is the correct answer. We do have a huge number of possible majors, but I think that we don't have quite enough, though that may be the bias of my own interests--I'm quite anticipating the emergence of the new Middle East and North African Studies program as a major.

Posted by: Ted on February 12, 2009 8:21 PM

I think that professional considerations come into play as well. Before I auditioned into the double degree program I intended to double-major in politics and english, both of which are great degrees for someone hoping for a career in journalism. A friend of mine is a politics and environmental science double-major, a fairly common combination here and one that also makes sense from a pre-professional standpoint. And so on.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, the more majors you have the smarter you are. "Gotta catch 'em all."

Posted by: Will on February 12, 2009 11:38 PM

Like Will, I see majors to serve as signals of skillsets that a person has. A Theater / Math major looks doubly hire-able. Or so we believe.

Within Oberlin, some departments almost require major status to attend high-level courses. The declared major means a commitment to courses. Except for Playwriting, non-Creative Writing majors can't really bust into upper level workshops. Space is limited.

Triple majors... I don't get that.

Posted by: Aries on February 13, 2009 8:57 AM

This is very helpful. I realize I should have included a fifth, much more pragmatic reason: keeping your future (employment) options open. I like the notion of the major as a particular skillset (rather than, say, a life's vocation)--but am wondering if most major programs are actually set up to allow students to acquire a particular set of (useful, applicable) skills.

To the extent that your choice of major is seen as a personal commitment (although obviously not an exclusive one), and an entry into a particular sub-community, do you feel that students identify strongly as a major in X or Y? And if so, do they identify with a department (i.e., group of professors), a field (interest, subject matter, outlook on the world), or with the other students in the major?

Posted by: Sebastiaan Faber on February 13, 2009 9:25 AM

So, I had one major: physics. I took German for six semesters, but I started from scratch, at 101. I would have loved to have been able to have something "official" that nodded to my interest and commitment - because six semesters IS a commitment - but I didn't even qualify for a minor in German.

Having a few words on paper that display your focus(es) in college is a nice and easy way for employers and graduate schools to "assess" whether an individual is "qualified." But quite honestly, I feel less qualified for a job in my major field than I do for a job say, tutoring middle schoolers in poetry. I took two poetry courses and one poetry winter term, and I'm much more confident in my pronunciation of Middle English than I am running experiments in a physics lab.

So, I don't know. I know(?) my degree is far from worthless, but I feel like it doesn't accurately describe my skill set at all. I'm tired of being judged by my resumé.

Maybe the rest of the world is just too lazy to talk to their potential employees? Or maybe I'm bitter because I'm currently unemployed.

Posted by: Mog/Margaret, '08 on February 13, 2009 11:48 AM

Some people in the administration are thinking of introducing an electronic portfolio for students--an online space where you can keep track of what you do during your four or five years here. You'd write regular posts on how your interests and ideas develop, but also upload papers, images, video, audio--a kind of academic Facebook. Once you leave, you could take the portfolio with you (virtually speaking) and use it as a presentation tool for potential employers. It would probably give a richer and less reductive picture of the actual content or value of your Oberlin degree.

Another idea is not to expand the number of majors or minors, but to come up with other formats that would also be "listable" on resumes and such: concentrations or certificates. Two years' worth of a particular language, for instance, could be awarded with a language certificate. Another advantage of the concentration or certificate is that it would allow us to identify meaningful or coherent clusters of courses that happen to be in different departments.

Posted by: Sebastiaan Faber on February 13, 2009 12:05 PM

I know a school which does not offer any sort of major but implies a similar portfolio system. I think the portfolio is a great idea and it can be a strong motivation for students to do a better job. I hope that the administration inaugurate the plan before I graduate.

Posted by: Anonymous on February 15, 2009 6:43 AM

I am a double-degree student because I know better than to major in what I actually want to pursue- music theory. With a degree in composition, another in computer science, and a strong theory background that I pursue in "required" upper level courses of my choice, I've always been told I will do better. It's that diversity, the Spanish class here, the Discrete Math there, that lets you not only be a more well-rounded person, but also lets you approach future problems in a multitude of ways.

And, of course, if not at Oberlin then when? Yes, I want to be hireable, but I also don't want to wake up in twenty years saying "God, I wish I took Japanese."

And triple majors? I think most of us only do that if we can get away with another major for only one or two more classes. Double degrees overlap almost none, but the double majors I considered overlap nearly completely. You might as well get your piece of paper if you are doing the work anyway.

Posted by: Sean on February 17, 2009 11:15 AM

Courtesy of the Registrar, here are some hard numbers:

Of the 501 students that graduated last May in the College of A&S, 338 had only one major, 156 had a double major, and 7 a triple major. Twenty students graduated with a double degree (Con & College). Of the 104 Conservatory grads, only 6 had a double major.

Posted by: Sebastiaan Faber on February 17, 2009 11:37 AM

I think I'm fairly unusual among Oberlin students in that I don't have a "well-rounded" double major like Creative Writing and ENVS, or something like that. However, I would like to suggest a new addition to your categories based on my experiences, and I'd be curious to know if anyone else has approached multiple majors this way. In my terms, I have a primary major (neuroscience) and a secondary major and minor (biochemistry and math). I need those additional areas of study to give me the background in both of those areas to do the neuro research that I want to; I think that I can't really understand neuroscience to the best of my ability without a deeper working knowledge of the way that individual neurons interact (hence the biochemistry) and the way that larger networks of neurons behave (hence the math).

Posted by: EM on February 17, 2009 10:57 PM

I think one of the reasons so many students double major is that we don’t do a very good job explaining why majors matter and don’t matter. This is unfortunate, because it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that majoring in a field means become a specialist in it. Thus, I know of art history majors concerned at the end of their major that they may not be able to explain the Parthenon and Hiroshige and Gu Kaizhi and Michelangelo and Eva Hesse. The idea that a major makes you a specialist or gives you an expertise explains some of the allure of the double major: who wouldn’t want to be doubly expert? People outside Oberlin also tend to believe that specific majors lead necessarily to specific outcomes, a belief that leads to the understandable (but nonetheless annoying) question: “You’re majoring in X? What are you going to with that?”

But majors at liberal arts colleges like Oberlin are not designed to make you a specialist. Take art history, my field; our major requires 30 hours—which is just over 25% of the hours required to graduate—or one of your four years here. That proportion alone helps explain that an Oberlin education is a lot more than your major. It also indicates that majors are not obstacles to assembling a curriculum that allows you to explore all your interests. No matter what your major, you still have plenty of freedom to take all those classes you really want to take (though double-majoring may get in the way—making you narrower, not broader). In fact, I think that freedom also explains why some students double major; it can be a way of building structure into a curriculum of almost infinite choice; if we had a core curriculum (which I do not desire), the number of double majors would probably decline.

Returning to the art history major: convert the hours to classes. Thirty hours is ten classes, and of these one will be in studio, so you’ve got nine classes in art history; two of these will probably be at the introductory level, so you’ve got seven classes in intermediate or advanced art history—and these will be spread across many centuries and continents. That’s a great selection, and an excellent introduction to the field, but it’s not enough to make anyone a specialist. Specialization is what grad schools are for.

So, if majors don’t create specialists, what are they good for, and why do we require them? Oberlin, like most schools, requires a major because completing a major is the most predictable way to become self-conscious and uncomfortable with a body of knowledge. If you major in art history, you won’t learn all of art history, or a list of the top 100 most important artists. Instead, as you learn about some art and artists from some different times and places, you’ll learn how art historians think, the questions we ask and how we go about answering them. You should also become aware of our weaknesses and blind spots, the questions we don’t answer well or fail to ask in the first place. This has a salutary effect. It underlines that we have the ability to identify important questions and pursue them; it also teaches that the questions we deem important may be of recent invention, and may not seem important fifty years from now. It’s simultaneously exciting and humbling.

Once you’ve learned to do this in one field, it’s easier to do it more quickly in other fields; if you’ve got a good grasp on how art historians approach the world, you’ll recognize more quickly how anthropologists or physicists do as well. In short, you don’t double your self-consciousness by doubling your major.

Because I understand majors this way, I always give this advice to students thinking about double majors: take the classes you want to take and if, when the first semester of your senior year rolls around, you’re headed toward completing a second major, terrific. But if you’re a class or two shy, that’s no problem. Think about this: nine classes in art history and one in studio art makes you a major; nine classes in art history but no studio course and you’re not a major. I don’t think any one will be surprised if I say that we don’t save a bunch of secrets for the studio class that vaults you from the ranks of the ignorant to the ranks of the specialist. Instead, we needed a minimum to become a major, and we were satisfied that nine classes was insufficient, and ten classes including a course in the practice of art was sufficient. The number’s not arbitrary, but neither is it exact. So if you’re a classics major or an English major or a chemistry major and you excel in lots of art history classes without completing the major, don’t fret; you’re likely to make a very good candidate to use art history in your future if you like.

I should note in conclusion that my understanding of a major depends to a large degree on my field. Art History entered the academy in the late 19th century, the same period when our departmental and major culture was created (see Sebastiaan’s Fourth Hypothesis, above). But while the field of art history has changed a great deal since then, the discipline is still recognizable: the questions it asks and the skills it requires are usefully grouped and taught under the label art history. I do not feel constrained in my teaching or scholarship by the departmental structure I inherited; in fact, I feel supported by it. But while this is true for art history, I recognize that it may not be so for other fields; for scholars and students in such fields as Latin American Studies or Comparative American Studies, the traditional departmental structure may be unduly confining. But in a final defense of the utility of our majors, I’d note that my ability to recognize how my field’s departmental and major definition works for me but may not work for other disciplines demonstrates the self-consciousness a major is designed to teach.

Posted by: Erik on February 22, 2009 11:15 AM

Let me follow (more briefly) off of Erik's good points. Having just visited the Freud Museum and House last week, I could speculate that students double (and triple) major because of anxiety... it took a lot of piling up the accomplishments to get into Oberlin, and it's hard to turn off the habit once here. OK, that's out of the way.

As Erik suggests, one serious issue we need to confront is that we (faculty? students?) no longer know what a major is or what it is for. The major was the device to insure that a liberal arts student would get "depth" as well as the breadth which was implied by an undergraduate liberal arts education. Traditionally, majors allowed students to get that depth in a specific disciplinary approach (history, economics, sociology, etc.). The idea was that one would not just learn "about" history (e.g., the history of Japan), but "how" history was "done," the specific disciplinary approach used by historians as opposed to the approach used by those trained in other disciplines. That is still the impulse behind many majors but I think that even some of the oldest disciplines have moved away from that. In the past 20-30 years, however, the older disciplines were augmented by newer, mostly inter-disciplinary majors. Some of these (GSFS, for example) have their own set of theories and a variety of methodological approaches. Others (Latin American Studies, for example) is about a place and has no specific theory or methodology associated with its study. That means that while some majors can be there to introduce students to "depth" in terms of how to do the discipline, others are there to encourage students to study more about a topic.

I have my own ideas as to whether these approaches are good (useful) or not, but one thing that seems clear is that those of us who organize majors are not always certain what function a major has. This can happen when original rationales for majors become institutionalized in a list of what student need to take...and then time (and knowledge) marches on. Good points to think about more.

Posted by: Steve Volk on February 22, 2009 3:57 PM

For the record, I agree with everything that Erik just wrote. (And for those of you not at Oberlin, it's Erik Inglis, the co-chair of the Art Department, since he didn't attach his last name.)

I'll go farther than Erik or Sebastiaan did and say that I believe far too many students double-major, largely because of the concern that Erik mentioned, that two majors can make your education narrower rather than broader. Completing, say, an English major and a history major just doesn't leave many electives for exploring the rest of the curriculum.

I had a student once who desperately wanted to study on the Oberlin-in-London Program with me, but couldn't because she needed to be on campus to complete the credits she needed for her East Asian Studies major (her second major in addition to Creative Writing). After wrestling with the issue, she finally decided not to complete the EAS major, and instead to come to London with me--which she says was one of the best decisions she ever made. She graduated with a major in Creative Writing, a strong background in EAS (though not quite a major), and the unforgettable experience of studying in London.

Students shouldn't feel obligated to complete a second major because they think it will give them more credentials in the world after college. I know of very few situations where that's the case.

Posted by: David on February 22, 2009 4:07 PM

I worry about double-majors. It seems to me that students sometimes take them because they believe that it leads to greater employability, and _in general_ I don't believe that to be true. That is, the fact that you have a double-major in Physics and English won't necessarily make you more attractive to the internet start-up that might hire you as a web designer. If you major in English and Physics because you love doing math problems about the frictionless universe, but you have the English major because you know that literary studies is where the big money is, that may be a different situation -- but the simple fact of a double-major is not, so far as I know, something that employers look for.

A wise friend of mine (whose name I'll reveal if she gives permission) once advised me that (paraphrasing here) "Every time you say yes to something, you're saying no to something else." It's a good idea to ask yourself what you're saying no to when you say yes to a double major; look at all the other electives that you lose so that you can have line on your transcript that says "Major: CAS/Hispanic Studies." In my opinion, the chance to branch out into other areas of knowledge -- admittedly, perhaps in a less structured way -- is rarely worth giving away for that second major.

I say this having decided, roughly 100 years ago, not to double-major (in English and Classics) myself; I ditched the second major (English) when I realized it would have required writing a second senior thesis. Instead of writing that second thesis, I spent more time on the first one, I played a fair amount of frisbee, and I got more sleep in my senior year. I've never regretted that decision.

Posted by: Kirk on March 3, 2009 4:10 PM

I personally am interested in a triple major because I am interested in both musical theater, and oboe performance. I want to be able to continue in both music selections in my life. I also want to major in Psychology. I see the two music majors, as similar passions that can coincide together. It is merely that I have many interests, and I do not think of one as more important than another. I don't think I could choose one or two out of the three interests I have, because I am equally passionate about all of them. I am ready to take on the work-load.
As a student, I am not choosing to take these majors for simply better employing opportunities, I see these goals as part of who I want to be.
With a double or triple major, in most schools, you can go between both the arts and sciences. There are of course parts of life you will be saying "no" to, but when there is so much that I want to do, giving up free time to practice what I am passionate about, does not seem like too much of a price to pay. If a student is ready to take on a double or triple major, then it is up to them to carry out that goal.

Posted by: Dorothy on December 4, 2009 7:15 PM

As a triple major myself, I've always been asked the question, why so many majors? I am currently majoring in Computer Information Systems, Accounting, and Business Administration. After attending my college for the first year, I already had an interest in Computers after taking courses in programming. However, after taking a few accounting and business courses, I also gained an interest in those fields and that's 50% of the reason why I am majoring in all three fields. Another reason I am a triple major is because all 3 majors fall under the division of Business at my school, so over half the core requirements of courses are exactly the same for all three majors.

Many people assume that I won't graduate in the 4 year time frame, but as a second semester junior, I have only 3 more business and accounting courses left, and 4 more computer courses left before I have completed each major to get my three bachelor degrees, including electives as well. Although I've had to take a minimum of 17-18 credit hours each semester to make this possible (approx 6 - 9 courses), I've maintained a 3.81 Cumulative GPA and a 4.0 Major GPA in all three majors combined.

Most people assume it is impossible to do a triple major, but you can do anything you put your mind and heart to if you are confident and believe in your own abilities.


Another main reason I am doing three majors is because of this:

I see so many students and adults go to a 2 or 4 year college and assume that just because they get a degree in a certain field that they are guaranteed a job in that field when they graduate. Getting a degree makes it easier to get a job versus not having a degree, but it is not guaranteed 100% that someone with a degree will be entitled to a job. Some college students graduate from colleges with one degree and a few years, if not months later, they are back in college again trying to get a second degree because either they could not find a decent job under that certain field or they found a job under that field and decided that the specific job field was not for them. I'm not saying it's impossible to find a job with just one degree because some college graduates find great jobs with just one degree in their possession.

For myself, when I graduate from college and one of my plans don't go accordingly to the way I want it to, then I have many backup plans to fall back on because I understand that it is not always guaranteed that a job under a specific major will be out there waiting for you after graduation. After I graduate and get a good decent job, I plan to go to grad school part time while I'm working in order to get a Masters' Degree in Computer information systems and when I receive that, I may even go for a Ph.D. depending on how well things may work out after getting my Master degree.

Another issue I've seen with college graduates is that just because they have received a degree under a certain field, they assume that they will be making "Big time Money" as soon as they get a job. I understand that before someone can make "big-time money" and get promotions, they have to start out small and at a low level and work their way up to the top where they then can make "big-time" money and earn that kind of respect.

For myself, I plan to have a job as Computer Programmer or Video Game Programmer, and when I become stable enough financially, I plan to open my own business selling computer software and video games that I've programmed and created. Since I would already have a background of knowledge in Business and Accounting, I would not even need to hire a Certified Public Accountant to monitor and keep track of my future company's financial records as I already would be in charge of doing that myself.


So this is just a little opinion I wanted to throw out there about triple majors.

Posted by: Terrence on January 24, 2010 12:48 PM

First off, I've reread this blog dozens of times in my academic journey, and I am continually impressed by the wisdom in both the post and the comments. Thank you all, sincerely. The comments, especially, have helped me shape my IM proposal by prodding me to form a clearer idea of what I think majors in general should do - and that is, in a nutshell, get me familiar enough with the subject matter and methodology that I can see what's uncomfortable about it. If I can problematize something, I have enough of a handle on it to take my life in that direction if I want to, I think.

What I have to contribute to the original question of the post: perhaps there is no one rationale for the different majors we multiple-major students choose. This has been implied with the theory that double majors pick one for passion and one for profession, but I want to say it explicitly, because I think the multiplicity of roles majors can play in a life is relevant to the abundance of multi-majoring.

I, for example, chose my German Studies major because it allowed me to piece my fragmented self together, not because I thought for a second that it was a subject I wanted to pursue for its inherent worth. What I was interested in wasn't the material but its outcome: a more coherent self. (I wrote a blog about that the other day, actually.)

But now I'm proposing a Linguistics Individual Major, and I'm doing it for passion. I'm not doing some academic equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses; I don't think I will become an expert because of this major (in fact, I should damn well hope my field is too magnificently complex to master in 40 credit hours); it's not that I'm cobbling together something entirely outside of the major system - I don't particularly mind the system so far, and I'd actually love to see Linguistics build a strong enough presence on this campus to gain the clout of a major. My reason for this major is simply that I can't not pursue it! Which is quite different reasoning from the path that got me my first major, and I fully anticipate my majors to do quite different things for me as a result. I am okay with that. If I may bring in a metaphor of polyamory: Linguistics is my primary partner, and German Studies, despite being an older relationship, plays a different (though no less treasured) role in my life; they each enrich me in ways the other could not. I didn't pick them to fill each other's gaps, that's just how it worked out.

Posted by: Ida on March 28, 2012 10:52 PM

Postscript: my point relates to the question about what students identify with academically, too. I sometimes feel like I like on a different planet from the German Studies majors who do it for love of the field, but I'm very connected to the professors, because they're the ones who've guided me on my journey through their material. On the flip side, whenever I meet anyone with the slightest interest in linguistics, I practically drool all over them out of sheer excitement. So: how I identify with parts of my majors depends very much on how I'm approaching said majors.

But, on the whole, I don't prioritize my major over any other defining aspect of my life. What I study is no more or less important than what instruments I play or what circus arts I train or what food choices I make, to me.

Posted by: Ida on March 28, 2012 11:00 PM

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