Tuesday’s Rogers Chair event gave FIMS students the opportunity to weigh in on the question “What is FIMS and is it working?” A panel of undergraduate and graduate students offered their takes on the program, followed by a general discussion about FIMS and its interdisciplinary mandate. I was fortunate to be one of three undergrads asked to speak, and my presentation addressed some of the overarching, structural issues facing FIMS’ undergrad programs. With this article I hope to bring some of these issues into the online public sphere. I encourage feedback from anyone in FIMS or beyond.
As a quick disclaimer, I’m speaking here as one undergrad student and not on behalf of all undergrads. I should also noted that my criticism is rooted in genuine concern. I wouldn’t change my undergrad experience for the world, but I still firmly believe we can make it better for the next generation of FIMS students.
The greatest challenge facing MIT/MTP/MPI is rapid expansion. When FIMS created the MIT program 15 years ago it had close to 200 students. Today, almost 1200 undergrads call FIMS home, but the underlying logic of the program has not changed. My thesis, if you can call it that, is that FIMS’ undergrad programs continue to serve only 200 students adequately. There is a troubling disconnect between what the other 1000 undergrads want and what FIMS is offering them. We need to acknowledge this gap and explore ways of bridging it.
MIT/MTP/MPI offer students a well-rounded, academic liberal arts education. In this regard, these programs are no different from any other BA at UWO or elsewhere. The problem, whether it is FIMS’ fault or not, is that the majority of students really want a vocational degree. To a certain extent, MTP and MPI address this concern with hands-on components, but I will gloss over those differences to keep things simpler here.
Consider this: if FIMS offered a “Media and the Private Interest” program, which combined MIT with BMOS to offer marketing, advertising, and public relations, 500 students would sign up tomorrow. I am not suggesting this in earnest (please, FIMS, don’t do it), but it illustrates the problem. Students come into FIMS with specific career goals and are disappointed to learn that our undergrad programs are entirely academic. High schools share a lot of the blame for propagating unrealistic expectations, but FIMS also has to take responsibility for how it promotes its undergrad programs. We need to stop promising something that FIMS is not. Our logo, anyone?
200 students are here because they want an academic education. The other 1000 aren’t. The issue of divergent expectations is the first concern I have with increasing enrollment.
The second concern I have is with the academic focus of MIT/MTP/MPI. As the programs have grown, courses and modules have been tacked on seemingly without considering the effect it has had on our core curriculum. MIT’s focus has been diluted. You can go four years in this program without once reading Foucault, or you can study him in every one of your classes. I’m not making a case for or against particular theorists, but I do think that FIMS needs to decide for itself what is most important for a media studies degree.
What are we supposed to get out of MIT/MTP/MPI?
This is not a rhetorical question. I encourage every student to ask themselves this question and discuss it here or elsewhere. Without focus, it is possible to graduate MIT/MTP/MPI with an education fundamentally different from your peers’, or even with no education at all.
Our courses themselves are not the problem. We are lucky in FIMS to have phenomenally intelligent and genuinely caring instructors and to have a diverse range of interesting and challenging topics to pick from. The problem lies in how these courses interact. They overlap, contradict, and yet still leave gaps in our evolving theoretical toolkits. Required courses taught by different instructors, for example, cover fundamentally different topics and theories.
I have concerns beyond divergent expectations and declining academic focus, but I won’t dwell on them in this article. The issues of inadequate resources (e.g. overworked academic counsellors) and declining academic standards, for example, warrant a separate, in-depth discussion.
Where do we go from here?
If you accept the premises I’ve laid out above, then I humbly present some solutions for the faculty’s consideration.
The simplest, but most radical, is to massively reduce enrollment. If the program is built for 200 students, why not slow enrollment until we’re back down to 200 students? Ignoring the fact that I have not arrived at this 200/1000 divide empirically, this question is rhetorical; to be economically sustainable FIMS needs to generate revenue through tuition, among other avenues. We shouldn’t shy away from growth either, as long as our administrative and curricular framework can adapt accordingly.
What we can do, however, is manage expectations. We need to be honest with prospective students and with our first years. MIT/MTP/MPI provide a liberal arts education. If you want a vocational education, seek out internships and other extracurricular opportunities (like the mitZine). FIMS and UWO provide a vast array of opportunities for skill development, but it requires initiative on the part of students.
The next solution is to refocus our curriculum. Our Undergraduate Affairs Committee needs to work with all of our instructors (especially limited duties instructors) to discern MIT/MTP/MPI’s core values and goals. Students need a tangible list of academic achievements to work towards, even if they are broad. Ultimately, we need our graduates to be able to say “this is what I got out of MIT/MTP/MPI”. On this note, our core courses need to be consistent, instructed by FIMS’ top professors, and relevant to our electives.
These suggestions require institutional and cultural change (they’re not magic bullet solutions), but they are achievable if the entire faculty gets on board. That means administrators, professors, deans, and students. The Rogers Chair events are a great start to this discussion, but we need to make the most of this introspective temperament and revolutionary spirit before it passes.
I encourage every student in FIMS to weigh in on these issues, regardless of your year or program. Think about it, talk about it, and write about it.
What you have to say is valuable, and, right now, FIMS is listening.