By Emile Erbland, Assistant Lead Writer
An article about slang terms published by the Boston Globe in 1953 said that “any snap course is ‘underwater basket weaving.’” Since that time, underwater basket weaving -- a real yet uncommon major -- has remained a joke that refers to a silly and useless course of study. Although the mocking of this supposedly ridiculous study isn’t taken seriously by most, bias against more ordinary college majors may still exist.
UR offers 62 academic majors and 50 minor for undergraduates across the School of Arts and Sciences, Jepson School of Leadership Studies and the Robins School of Business. Enrollment records from 2017 indicate that the School of Arts and Sciences has the largest student population with 2365 full-time undergraduates, Robins School of Business teaches 519 students and only 75 students study leadership at Jepson. With students spread across such a wide range of disciplines at separate schools, social groups can quickly form based on shared academic study.
The process of specialization intrinsic to choosing a major creates distinct social groups. After freshman year, when general-education courses are usually taken, students slowly separate into groups defined by their major. Once students begin taking upper-level courses in their departments, their opportunity to take classes with students from other majors dwindles. While this system allows collaboration at a higher level, perhaps students from different majors and schools are too separated from one another. An anonymous survey administered by Forum Magazine to undergraduates at the University of Richmond posed questions about the nature of academic disciplines and how students view other subjects besides their own.
The survey recorded the respondent’s own major along with his or her opinions about the difficulty of their major, what makes one major more rigorous than another and stereotypes they may have heard about different majors. One respondent of the survey commented that the “UR class schedule makes it so that once you declared your major, it’ll be hard to socialize with people outside your own major.” Without knowledge of other disciplines, misunderstanding and judgement about the perceived difficulty of majors arises. One person said “there is the blatant bias in everyone thinking what they do is the hard, but not having a true idea of how hard the classes are for each department.”
Ninety-four percent of the survey participants believe that some majors are more rigorous than others. Seventy-three percent believe that some majors are inherently harder than others depending on the subject matter. When asked what factors make one major harder than another, 87 percent said hours spent on homework and 37 percent thought labs and research made up the hardest components. Fewer than 6 percent of respondents thought that performing art or music added difficulty to a major. When asked what factor was most important when choosing a major, 51 percent chose personal fulfillment and 46 percent chose job opportunities. Lately in popular culture, academic disciplines deemed to be more “useful” are pitted against the humanities and arts. Real Memes of UR, the popular Instagram page created to point out social conventions, has made several memes stereotyping Richmond students and their major choices. One meme, the “unfulfilling humanities class starter pack” seems to imply that students in the humanities have it easy with phrases like “someone just repeats what the professor says and passes it off as participation” and the Sparknotes logo.
Another recently popular meme features a man ignoring his girlfriend and looking at another woman; in Real Memes of UR’s version, the woman is labeled “Bschool degree with added job security” and the girlfriend is labeled “an actually enjoyable area of study”.
Beyond UR, social-media posts ridiculing certain majors and praising others have gained attention. One popular tweet read “college is crazy because you can be in the library work-ing on your 20-plus-page biochem lab report while some girl sitting next to you cuts out gingerbread men for her education class and complains about not having enough time to do it.”
A simple Google search turns up dozens of memes and tweets pitting different majors against each other. Ninety-nine percent of survey participants admitted that they had seen or heard stereotypes pertaining to particular majors, but only 25 percent believed the stereotypes were harmful. One respondent commented “some are harmful, such as those that degrade the validity of a liberal arts degree” and another wrote “who cares...just take stereotypes as a joke and embrace them if they’re true.” Although everyone has their own opinions on the difficulty of different majors, they may not matter at all. A survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that “ninety-three percent of employers agree that ‘a [job] candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.’”
So whether the comment about underwater basket weaving is taken as a joke or actually offends -- the class is actually taught at Reed College -- major choice is not the biggest decision in one’s life.