After filling out applications and preparing for interviews, students recently received notice of their acceptance to selective programs including Global Studies, Political & Social Thought, Political Philosophy, Policy, and Law and the Honors Politics program. Each of the programs’ applications involved submitting a resume, a transcript and faculty recommendations.
The Honors Politics program was the most competitive pool and had seven more applicants than last year, accepting just six students out of 30 applicants. As for the other selective programs, PST accepted 22 out of 56 students, PPL accepted 26 out of 107 students and Global Studies accepted approximately 220 out of 472 students for six different tracks. This includes the new track of Global Commerce in Culture & Society — a program that Phoebe Crisman, director of global studies and professor of architecture, says will investigate the social, cultural and historical impacts on the global economy. Last year, Global Studies accepted fewer students — 185 out of 340 applicants. All other groups’ yield rates remained relatively the same.
According to John Owen, chair of the politics department and professor of politics, earning a politics degree is important because of the foundation these classes provide to make students better participants in the world at-large. Currently 699 students are politics majors compared to 775 from last year.
“These degrees, we believe, equip students to be good citizens by educating them in how politics at various levels – community, city, state, nation, world – works,” Owen said. “We also try to get our students to understand why so much human interaction is political – that is, involves competing interests and ideas about what would be a good or bad public order. We try to teach our students to seek explanations for political outcomes, so that they can think clearly about how to work for the common good.”
Owen also noted that the politics department is participating — along with the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Miller Center of Public Affairs — in the University’s Democracy Initiative — which seeks to study and strengthen democracy around the world — by devoting faculty to teach classes related to the Initiative or get involved with Democracy Labs that are funded by the Initiative. In addition to faculty participation, Owen wants students to have a chance to participate in the Initiative.
“We hope that, as the Initiative grows, we’ll be able to involve more of our students in its programs,” Owen said.
Second-year College student Alex Williams was one of the six students to be accepted into the Honors Politics program. Williams said he was ecstatic when he got the news and is looking forward to small discussion-based seminars.
“I'm a really big proponent of small seminars in which you get to really challenge other people's views and iterate your own, and clearly articulate your ideas and be challenged on those, because I think that's how people really develop as speakers and thinkers,” Williams said. “I think it represents the crux of what a true liberal arts education should be.”
However, selective majors mean that some students will not have the chance to pursue a track that attracted their interest. Colin Bird, director of PPL and associate professor of politics, discussed why the programs must take a small number of students to make the program productive.
“If you have more than 12 or 13 people in them, it becomes very difficult for students’ theses to get enough attention,” Bird said. “They write a 35 to 40 page thesis in the context of that Capstone seminar which is run as a kind of workshop … The feedback from their classmates, input from their Capstone instructor and assistance from their advisor makes them produce a tight, nice well argued cogent thesis.”
This thesis is one of the aspects of the PPL program that Bird hopes students will appreciate when they graduate.
“I really hope that the PPL students can go out into the world with the kind of critical capacity to detect and expose bulls—t — and there's an awful lot of bulls—t,” Bird said. “And being able to carefully analyze things that people say, and point out where reasoning is faulty or premature or flawed. That's not only a tremendously valuable skill in the workplace. I think it's also a tremendously important thing for democratic citizenship.”
Despite these selective programs producing the necessary qualities for democratic citizenship by teaching students how to analyze and combat alternative facts, Bird doesn’t see how the number of accepted students could increase due to a lack of resources — both monetarily and in the number of teachers. Sidney Milkis, director of the politics honors program and professor of politics, notes that the most effective way to allow students to think critically is through conversations in small classes.
“We develop a sense of community, and a kind of special relationship with faculty that really makes possible a deep immersion in the most interesting and important political questions,” Milkis said. “So, if we expand it the program would lose its character. There's a dimension of scale that's involved in providing this kind of education. But, you know, to be perfectly candid. I think about that and I wonder if at some point we might think about expanding it to 10.”
Bird agrees with Milkis and notes that large lectures don’t foster the same type of critical thinking development that small discussion based seminars allow.
“It just doesn't work if you've got 150 in a big lecture class,” Bird said. “You can lecture them about how to think clearly but unless the students themselves are engaged through the school moderated discussion, then they aren’t in fact going to develop the skills of thinking critically.”
Bird also notes that the size of accepted students could not increase because the Politics department is still looking to fill positions that have been left in recent years.
“The politics department has lost quite a few staff members in the last few years because of departures, tenure denials and retirement and the College hasn't even replaced them,” Bird said. “Without additional staff … it's not going to happen so I can't see it expanding beyond its present size given current staffing.”
Owen also wishes that the politics department could have a larger faculty group but understands the limitations that the University has to satisfy each academic area's needs. However, the politics major is one of the most popular majors at the University with over 600 majors currently.
“Like most other departments, politics would love to have more faculty,” Owen said. “We press our case every year, but we fully understand that the College’s resources are not unlimited and that the deans must make difficult decisions … That said, for a faculty of 37, we do have a large number of majors.”
According to Bird, the changes necessary to expand programs such as PPL won’t be happening anytime soon.
“Trying to interrupt the momentum that's built up behind this institutional edifice of the early 21st century research university it's a little bit like trying to stop an oil tanker with a rowboat, you know, it's got all of this institutional momentum behind it,” Bird said. “And all of the resources are tied into faculty lines that are connected to particular departments and disciplines … This is not unique to U.Va., it's an absolutely standard thing.”