The annual NSSE benchmark study of universities is out and it has a handy “Report Builder” that allows you to generate reports drawn from their broad survey of freshman and senior undergraduates at a huge range of institutions in the US and Canada. I decided to play around with it a bit, and generated these two models of student opinions about their major at competitive research universities in the US:
Freshman Responses by Major
Senior Responses by Major
This seems to confirm the counterintuitive reaction I get when I tell people outside the university that I’m an English professor. 9 times out of 10, they tell me how *hard* they found their English courses in college.
This is a really broad survey — it captures about 200,000 students. And as compared to their peers in the Business and Professional Schools, as well as the Physical Sciences, Humanities majors find their course of study, on average, more difficult, with better student-faculty interaction, and more of a sense that they’ve been enriched by their education. Leaving aside the actual merits of a humanities degree out int he world, I suspect that the degree of perceived difficulty in achieving a degree correlates to better performance out in the world. After all, you’ve done something you perceive as genuinely hard, and this has to reinforce your sense of your own capacity in facing new challenges and new working environments. Unfortunately, statistics on job performance for arts and humanities majors are extremely scarce. As I’ve noted before (here and here), and unlike a professional degree, a major in English is unlikely to be a prerequisite for the vast majority of jobs that these graduates go on to do. And this makes it hard to develop industry-specific workplace surveys that capture their performance.
I also note that there seems to be some deterioration in Humanities performance as students transition from freshman to senior year. I’d be curious how much of this is an historical artifact of the different cohorts being compared, and how much it reflects the more disorganized curriculum and sequencing of Humanities degrees in advanced coursework. It’s harder to take stock of how far you’ve come when your senior-level coursework is similar to your experience as a sophomore.