In the five years from 2009 to 2014, the number of undergraduate students with declared humanities majors decreased by over 200 students while the number in the natural sciences division has increased by a similar amount.
Some students majoring in smaller academic schools and degree programs have expressed concerns about the repercussions of majoring in areas with few students. However, others said there are benefits to being part of a small community.
The School of Humanities contains the fewest undergraduate majors, according to the Office of Institutional Research: The entire humanities division held only 157 declared majors in fall 2014; comparatively, the psychology major alone, a part of the School of Social Sciences, had 209 declared students and mechanical engineering had 163.
After registering for Asian Religions in America (ASIA 230) in spring 2015, Asian studies major Radhika Sharma said she was concerned the course would be canceled due to lack of enrollment, since it only had three students after the first class.
“I started to ask my friends to sign up for the class before the two-week add deadline passed because we needed at least five students to be registered or the class may be cut,” Sharma, a Brown College sophomore, said.
Sharma said her friends added the course the day before the deadline and dropped it soon after so that the class would not get cancelled.
Some departments may cancel courses with low enrollment, according to University Registrar David Tenney (Sid Richardson ’87), but unlike many institutions, Rice does not in fact have a policy requiring a minimum number of students to enroll in the course to prevent its cancellation.
“I’ve heard that some academic departments closely monitor their course enrollments during registration in order to monitor and measure demand,” Tenney said. “Our office will see a few courses cancelled before the semester starts, but very, very few.”
According to Sonia Ryang, director of the Chao Center for Asian Studies, there are 25 to 30 students majoring in Asian studies at any given time and roughly 15 students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the major each year.
Sharma said she feels the largest issue with the department is the relative lack of resources present for Asian studies majors, though she said the department was working to improve.
“A lot of our peer universities ... have established opportunities for Asian studies students that help them gain real-world experience and a much deeper understanding of a culture, but we are lacking in [these opportunities], which is unfortunate,” Sharma said.
Likewise, medieval and early modern studies major Henry Bair said the biggest drawback of being in a small major was the smaller number of opportunities offered.
“Rice already provides very little for the humanities, and being a tiny major in the humanities certainly doesn’t help,” Bair said. “This lack of resources is manifested in the dearth of publicity, guest lectures, relevant material in the library, funds for students and variety in course offerings.”
Medieval and early modern studies is Rice’s smallest major; the major is interdisciplinary and has only two to three declared undergraduate students each year, according to program director and art history professor Diane Wolfthal. In 2011, there was only one MDEM major.
“The highly interdisciplinary nature of the major makes it easy to see how literature, art, history, linguistics, philosophy, religion and music are all interrelated,” Bair said.
Asian studies is also interdisciplinary, which Ryang said allows for faculty in both the School of Humanities and School of Social Sciences to be affiliated with the Chao Center.
French studies, another small interdisciplinary major, currently has only 20 declared undergraduates. French studies major Alex Mardock, a Lovett College senior, said a small major can sometimes actually increase the resources available to each student since there is less competition.
“The department awards generous scholarships to several students who hope to study abroad in France,” Mardock said. “The small size of the student population makes such opportunities attainable for most people who apply.”
Asian studies major Karen Resnick said the connections students can easily build with their professors is the another advantage for the divisions with so few students.
“Classes are much smaller and the program itself cares a lot about each student individually,” Resnick, a Duncan College senior, said. “They are able to devote a lot more time and resources, as well as listen to student feedback.”
Additionally, Ryang said the Asian studies B.A. is well-suited for double majoring with other subjects, including math, science and engineering. Double majoring is common in many small majors. According to Deborah Nelson-Campbell, a French studies professor, out of the 20 declared majors, most of the students are double majoring.
“We have a large number of majors who are pre-med and enjoy their French courses because they are so different from science courses,” Nelson-Campbell said. “Many of our majors use French after graduation as a way to increase the options that they have in the job they get with their other major.”
Mardock, who is majoring solely in French studies, said the stigma that French studies is an easy major or produces graduates with poor job prospects is a drawback to majoring in a less-popular major.
“I was once asked, upon telling someone my major, ‘So, what’s your other major?’” Mardock said. “Personally, I’m truly passionate about my classes and my major.”
Mardock said he felt that negative perceptions of many small majors may be preventing them from enrolling more students.
“I will forever be grateful for the knowledge and perspective on the world that I’ve gained throughout my time at Rice,” Mardock said. “It makes me sad to know that many of my peers are turned away from smaller majors by the external pressure of these stereotypes.”