Unexplored Skill Sets Become Academic Disciplines

By Julia Dolinger


Today’s college students are graduating with a wide variety of majors and certifications, coming into the working world prepared with more innovative skills and perspectives than ever before. From Public Policy and Middle East or Africana Studies to Astronomy and Environmental Sciences, the degree opportunities available create endless niches of academic inquiry. However, in the past decade more specialized higher education programs have appeared at schools nationwide, including at institutions with Phi Beta Kappa Chapters: Food Studies, Creative Studies, and Decision Sciences, to name a few. 

Earlier this month, Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (home to the Alpha of Pennsylvania Chapter of ΦBK) approved its landmark Food Studies Certificate. The program is years in the making at Dickinson, dating back to the 1990s when the college began its Student Garden Program to cultivate campus awareness of food and food issues. Hands-on familiarity with food systems is already a possibility through the Dickinson College Farm, established in 2007. In 2014, a faculty working group came together to explore the potential union of food and curriculum. The collection of 38 faculty members submitted a proposal for the certificate at the beginning of 2016, and it was approved in February. 

The developing Food Studies department defines the discipline as “the critical examination of food – the evolution of its procurement, production, consumption, and cultural meanings within the contexts of the natural and social sciences and humanities.” Where does food come from? Why do people eat what they eat? Are current food systems sustainable? What factors will shape the future of food systems, foodways, and food culture? These are some of the questions students will ask in upcoming courses such as Introduction to Food Studies and even a Food Studies Capstone Senior Seminar, according to the recent proposal put forth from the Dickinson Academic Program and Standards Committee. 

Susan D. Rose, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, a faculty member who pioneered the certificate, elaborates on why Food Studies is important to her and to Dickinson. “Food affects our everyday lives in so many ways—from what we eat to who labors to grow the food for us to our health and ways that we care for others,” she says.  “It is an expression of culture but also of consumption, economics involving both local and globalizing forces.”

Though the certificate focuses on issues surrounding hunger, food health, ecology, etc. students are prepared for any number of post-graduate fields with the use of curriculum materials from the chemistry, nutrition science, history, cultural studies, and philosophy departments, among others. Outside the classroom, the certificate is supported by Dickinson’s College Farm, the Center for Sustainability Education, the Community Studies Center, the Center for Global Study and Engagement, dining services, and local organizations like Project SHARE (a food and nutrition education program supporting local residents in need). 

Farther west in Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University (site of the Upsilon of Pennsylvania Chapter of ΦBK) has spent the last fifteen years developing a major in Decision Science. The university is the only institution offering this undergraduate major that “integrates analytical and behavioral approaches to decision making” in order to “improve the judgment and decision making of individuals, groups, and organizations,” according to the department website. Courses in the major, the site explains, center around “normative analysis, creating formal models of choice; descriptive research, studying how cognitive, emotional, social, and institutional factors affect judgment and choice; and prescriptive interventions, seeking to improve judgment and decision-making” in addition to electives tailored to decision –making as related to students’ career goals. 

Faculty Director Baruch Fischhoff predicted in founding the major that “graduates who studied a combination of psychology, economics and management science would receive a versatile educational foundation that could be applied in any field or industry.” Fischhoff, as reported to the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences news source last year, has found his prediction to ring true. Decision Science graduates are some of the most likely to be accepted into Ph.D. programs, and are represented in professional schools from the medical field to divinity school. The major capitalizes on what the human mind instinctually carries within—the ability to judge—and teaches students to assert this in numerous situations. 

A third expanding academic discipline also takes notes from what is thought to be an innate human talent, and turns it into a teachable skill. Institutions such as Buffalo State College, SUNY, Drexel University, Texas A&M, and the University of Georgia aim to foster innovation with degree programs in Creativity and Creative Studies. The schools are responding to a marketplace demand for the skills, says a 2014 New York Times article, “Learning to Think Outside the Box.” In the Introduction to Creative Studies course offered at Buffalo State, which also boasts an MS in Creative Studies, a graduate certificate program in Creativity and Change Leadership, and an undergraduate minor in Creative Studies, students explore definitions of “creativity,” consider what makes an individual creative, rephrase problems as questions, and practice divergent and convergent thinking patterns.

The undergraduate minor in Creative Studies offered at Texas A&M University (home of the Kappa of Texas Chapter of ΦBK) strives to develop students’ creative abilities within the area of their future profession. Required classes include Creativity Theories and Research and Lateral Thinking and elective options range from Drawing to Floral Design to Product Management. This minor encourages confidence and adaptability across fields, which is crucial for 21st-century graduates. 

Creative Studies primes students for ingenuity post-grad, and companies are taking notice. The New York Times article cited above notes that in 2010 “creativity” was the factor most crucial for success found in an IBM survey of 1,500 chief executives in 33 industries,” and “creative” remains one of the most-used buzzwords on LinkedIn to catch employer’s attention. Creativity is especially in demand for its interdisciplinary quality, or the ability to enable actors to move between fields and form new ideas among them. No longer is creativity based solely on a supposed “stroke of genius.”

Whether or not college students partake in a Food Studies, Decision Science, or Creative Studies Program, it is clear that there is a new and still-growing diversity of study available to them. Between hands-on involvement in the local food movement at Dickinson College or inventing a new product or “life hack” in Introduction to Creative Studies at Buffalo State, college grads are approaching the professional world uniquely prepared, equipped with applicable skill sets, whatever their career path. 

Julia Dolinger is a senior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, majoring in English. Dickinson College is home to the Alpha of Pennsylvania Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.