A Different Course

Over the last few years, fears have run rampant over the number of college students graduating in five years or more. University of California undergraduate graduation rates hit their all time low in the mid-’90s, with nearly 40 percent of college graduates across UC campuses taking more than four years to graduate. 

It was no wonder that university officials have enlisted an effort to shuffle over 150,000 undergraduates through dozens of different disciplines in as little time as possible. And in doing so, the most recent data circa 2004 has shown a decrease in five-plus year graduates, now hovering around 23 percent. Clearly, changes still need to be made.

The UCSD Communications Department made such a change this past spring, effective Fall Quarter 2012. By cutting its major requirements from 15 classes to 13 classes, and generalizing the way the courses are labeled, the major now can effectively be finished in less than three years, with minimal prerequisites. Before, the major followed three major paths that each student had to complete to finish the major. 

For instance, to take a class labeled COCU 177, one had to take the lower division introductory course COCU 100, which of course had an overcrowded waitlist. By eliminating the unnecessary constraints of the COCU, COHI and COSF sequences, the Communications Department effectively opened up its major like its more enrollment-friendly peer, political science. Even though political science majors can choose any number of specialties, they essentially have free reign over which classes they wish to take out of the 15 to 20 offered in a quarter. 

But while these dramatic major changes are a step in the right direction in pushing students towards graduating on time, these easier requirements only highlight the fact that if communications wasn’t notoriously the easiest major before, it certainly is now. 

However, this shortened major (that allows Ds as passing grades, no less), certainly will push students who want to stay their full four years to take up a second major or at the very least, a minor. 

Another significant shift in this major change is the fact that it highlights just how theoretical communications is. When the program was founded in the 1970s with the development of Thurgood Marshall College, the department took on a more theoretical approach to communication studies instead of going a more practical route. 

According to Communications Professor Patrick Anderson, the Communications Department was created to train communication theorists in critical thought.  This is certainly reflective now, with such class requirements as “Situated Practices,” “Interpretive Strategies” and “Social Formations.” With such theoretical courses and a great deal of intellectual repetition (Stuart Hall, for one), many of the courses start to seem almost expendable.  

While this approach has made UCSD’s Communications Department, according to Anderson, one of the most cutting edge departments in the nation, we posit that the major could benefit from more practical course offerings. Currently, the curriculum offers classes that balance practical knowledge with theory — media offerings in the context of political science, journalism in the context of sociology. 

And though these offerings are certainly helpful in a theoretical standpoint, the fact of the matter remains that most communications students plan to graduate and enter the workforce, and to do so, need to learn practical skills. 

In fact, the Communications Department already offers classes under the title, Communications and Media Methods, which offer practical skills such as “non-linear digital editing” and “Digital Journalism.” Now that the mandatory COHI, COCU and COSF sequences have been eliminated from the major, it incentivizes taking these media classes that were once considered “electives.”

In the case of UCSB, communications coursework takes a dive into the practical, with courses like “Interviewing theory and practice” while keeping the study theoretical with courses called “Persuasion.” 

One positive outcome of this shift is the requirement of junior seminars in the major. Though of course, these seminars stay firmly rooted in the realm of the theoretical, it allows communications students an opportunity to take classes taught by their favorite professors and develop a rapport, crucial to getting letters of recommendation post-graduation. 

In short, while the communication major changes are certainly a step in the right direction in reducing the number of five-plus-year graduates at UCSD, a greater focus on the value of coursework (theoretical or otherwise) will ensure the value of a communications major.