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Reflections on the Changing BA

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Jean-Marc Mangin, Executive Director, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

The Canadian BA is surely but subtly transforming before our very eyes, as Antonia Maioni points out in a thoughtful op-ed in The Globe and Mail this week. The program from which I graduated at the University of Toronto more than 25 years ago is a case in point—it has maintained the same name but its curriculum has evolved in fascinating new directions and is making great strides toward preparing students for the unexpected. Leslie Chan, Program Supervisor for the International Development Studies program at the University of Toronto Scarborough has been instrumental in this transformation.  

Chan is no stranger to the common concern of first-year students: “What kind of job am I going to get with this degree?”

He is honest with his students: In this day and age, a lot can change in four years. In this period traditional jobs will disappear, while jobs will emerge that have never existed before. Some students will have to invent their own job descriptions and titles. His students, he insists, are very good at doing that.

Credit here is due to liberal arts programs, like his, that have recognized the paradigmatic change in the job market, restructuring and reinventing themselves to respond to the needs of students. Contemporary BA programs recognize that most students do not seek disciplinary knowledge leading to work in a specific area; rather, students seek preparation for manifold employment opportunities.  At the forefront of the BA’s response to this reality has been the proliferation of cross-disciplinary degrees.

 “If you go back 20 years, programs tended to be fairly traditional, if you will, along disciplinary lines,” Chan tells me. “Today you go into university, and you see a lot more cross-disciplinary programs.”

UTSC, for example, offers programs in art, culture and media that bring together experts in art history, the fine arts, English literature, and media studies. The result, for students, is a contemporary approach to understanding the world that prepares them to adapt to continually changing realities.

Programs from health to policy to development studies expose students to scholars from different fields working together on common interests. Graduates of Chan’s own program may go on to become policy makers, development practitioners, program designers, lawyers or doctors. Wherever they go professionally, these students carry with them the ethics and ethos of their interdisciplinary program.

The new, cross-disciplinary BA spectacularly inverts the public perception of the humanities and social sciences as outdated and impractical education tools. These programs are at the forefront of postsecondary education and job preparation. The times, they are a-changing, and the contemporary BA is riding the wave of change with confidence and gusto. 

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