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Faculty votes to remove communication major

By Bonnie Wertheim '14

March 6, 2014

At Tuesday’s faculty meeting, a long-contested area of study received a final decision. The faculty unanimously voted to close the communication major based on what Professor of History and Chair of the Committee on Academic Policy (CAP) Thomas Wilson called a “lack of curricular merit.”

“It was not news to me because there have been discussions ongoing for sometime,” Professor of Communication Catherine Phelan told The Spectator.

When Phelan first arrived at Hamilton in 2000, the now-Communication Department was called “Rhetoric,” and focused primarily on oral communication. According to the department’s page on Hamilton.edu in 2000, a concentration in rhetoric offered “systematic study of the substance and the process of oral communication with particular attention to their effects upon understanding, agreement and coordinated action among people.” At the time, the College’s archivist told Phelan that rhetoric was the first academic department established at a college or university in the United States.

In 2003, the faculty approved the communication concentration, which Phelan explained as the “institution of a new curriculum and focus.” Rather than solely dealing with oral communication, the new curriculum broadened the department’s coverage to “interpersonal, social, and technological dimensions of communication,” according to the Communication and Rhetoric Department page that year.

When the concentration first passed, the department had only two faculty members, but the number of concentrators was manageable. Currently, the Communication Department has three faculty members—Professor Phelan, Visiting Assistant Professor Megan Dowd, Ph.D. and Visiting Assistant Professor Christina Ceisel, Ph.D.—and 46 concentrators, 16 of whom are seniors who require thesis advising. The student-faculty ratio within that department makes the 9:1 that the College boasts on its admission materials seem deceptive.

While the department was permitted one tenure track faculty member, one term faculty member and one special appointment faculty member for the current academic year, Dean of Faculty Patrick Reynolds announced at the faculty meeting that for 2014-2015, the department would only be allowed one tenure track professor and one term professor. The present and projected faculty resources are insufficient for the amount of student interest that exists.

The implications of the decision to close the concentration based on these staffing constraints and “curricular merit” are both immediate and long-term.

“For students right now at the College, there’s no change,” Phelan said. “As a consequence of this move, I’ve now secured the FTE necessary to cover courses for the students currently enrolled.” Additionally, students will still have the opportunity to declare minors in communication.

However, Phelan recommended some revisions to the way that concentrations are evaluated at Hamilton, emphasizing the need for consistency and the consideration of student input.

“Any student who has been in a class in communication has earned the right to assess and knows in their own mind the value or lack of value of those courses,” Phelan said. “If there were assessment criteria offered for all concentrations that could be used to determine the value of those courses,” then the CAP’s process of concentration evaluation would seem more valid to her. She mentioned the types of graduate schools that students in a given concentration get into as a possible means of evaluation of a concentration’s merit, noting that students she has taught at Hamilton are now in graduate programs at Columbia, NYU, Northwestern and USC, to name a few.

Current communication concentrators similarly take issue with the process of concentration evaluation and the faculty’s assessment of communication’s value.

“Communication is, in my opinion, one of the most (if not the most) valuable majors at Hamilton College,” Will Schink ’15, a communication concentrator, said. “The fact that so few other liberal arts colleges have one is valuable, not a burden. Regardless of the faulty argument that ‘practical or applied majors have no place in liberal arts’ there is theoretical underpinning to the study that other majors and areas barely touch on.”

“The dean of faculty put [Professor Phelan] in a position where she had to say, ‘We don’t have the resources to maintain this department,’” said senior concentrator Tara Huggins. “Plus, if future employers Google ‘Hamilton College Communication Department,’ they’ll see that the College eliminated the concentration that I graduated with.”

Schink and Huggins expressed concern that the College’s decision to close the communication concentration might be part of a larger project: competing with its fellow NESCACs in rankings.

“Our decision to ‘follow the leader’ and forgo being the only NESCAC with a communication major is something that makes Hamilton College a little less ‘Hamilton,’” Schink added.

Huggins echoed his feelings. “Hamilton keeps trying to be like everyone else,” she said, “when it’s supposed to be teaching us to be ourselves.”

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