“I logged into our learning management program to see what my advising load looked like this year, and was sure that the software had a bug in it. Among the class of 2027, there were more students already intending to major in PPE before setting foot on campus than our philosophy department actually graduates in any given year.”
That’ s Rosa Terlazzo (University of Rochester), discussing one of the reasons why philosophy departments might be interested in launching a Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) major.
As she notes, there are other reasons, and in the following guest post, she offers some advice for departments on how to get such programs started.
Starting a PPE Program on a Shoestring: Why & How
by Rosa Terlazzo
Here are some things that most of us are probably all too used to at this point: being constantly asked to do more with less; being incessantly asked to justify—and often fight for—the existence of our departments and discipline; and finding ourselves always in competition with other departments for majors and resources. In this post, I’m going to say a bit about starting an undergraduate PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) major as a way of doing all of these things. Be warned, though, that this post is based entirely on my own experience of starting a PPE major with my colleagues at the University of Rochester. We started the process of developing the major in the fall of 2019, and we’re now beginning the second year in which students can declare a PPE major. I’m not claiming that this is the best way to structure a PPE program—it almost certainly isn’t, because we started ours with effectively no new resources to put towards it. And this post isn’t full of links to helpful information or hard data—because let’s face it, I have 47 other ways of doing more with less currently on my to-do list. But I’m proud of our PPE major, and I’m excited about what I think it will be able to do. And if you’re trying to do more with less, justifying your existence to administrators, or fighting for majors, maybe there is something here that your philosophy department can use.
Why Start a PPE program?
Let’s start with the most cynical reason to start a PPE program: majors. A few days before the semester began in September, I logged into our learning management program to see what my advising load looked like this year, and was sure that the software had a bug in it. Among the class of 2027, there were more students already intending to major in PPE before setting foot on campus than our philosophy department actually graduates in any given year. And since so many students come to campus undecided, I only expect this number to grow between now and 2027 graduation. Anecdotally, this seems to be true across PPE programs. Among the people I know at institutions with both a PPE and a philosophy major, the PPE program has more majors than (the rest of) the philosophy program in the very large majority of cases.
But less cynically—indeed, so much less cynically that it risks sounding cheesy—I think that PPE is a genuinely wonderful way of showing both our students and our institutions one way in which philosophy really matters in the world. For idealistic students who want to make change in the world, combining philosophy with politics and economics lets them see what an important role philosophy can play in critiquing and reforming the very institutions they want to change. And for administrators who love buzzwords like “interdisciplinary” and “socially-engaged learning”, it’s hard to do better than a PPE program. (Ok, maybe there’s still a bit of cynicism left.)
How to do it on a shoestring budget
So if I’m right, and starting a PPE program is worth doing, how do you make it happen—especially if, as in so many of our cases, you don’t have endowment money or new faculty lines to put towards it? Here are three things that we did when starting our PPE major with approximately zero new resources available to us:
- Borrow heavily. Our PPE major requires 12 courses, 11 of which were already on the books and regularly taught. Other departments were generally happy to let their courses count towards our major requirements, since having our students in them counted towards their course enrollments. And this meant that in terms of faculty hours, starting the major was no more demanding than adding a new elective course.
- Focus on bringing students together in just a few high impact ways. The one new course we added was a PPE seminar, to be taught every year. Since this is the only new course we were able to design for the major, we decided to focus it not on methods (since students will get methods from each discipline in the other courses in the major anyway), but on how to ask questions in interdisciplinary ways, and on how to use the perspective of each discipline to be alive to short-comings in the proposals offered by the other two. The hope is that they will then use this framework in other single-disciplinary courses in their major. The other way in which PPE majors are brought together is in a final paper presentation, in which graduating seniors share their work with the rest of the PPE program. Originally we planned to do this by having every graduating student give a traditional talk with Q&A period, but upon seeing how many intended majors we have, we realized that this was going to be logistically impossible. We’re now going to use one session of the PPE seminar as a poster session in which graduating seniors share their work, and current seminar students can circulate and engage in depth with the papers and projects that they are most interested in. We think that this format will serve lots of functions: to give our students practice with presenting their ideas in a variety of formats (including visually, interactively in discussion, and via a clear and accessible “elevator pitch”), to help all of our students see the broad range of ways in which the tools of PPE might be applied, and to inspire and attract new majors among those enrolled in the seminar but not yet majoring. With very little to work with in terms of new courses offered, we hope that we’ve nonetheless created some high-impact ways of unifying and animating the program.
- Thematic concentration to personalize the major. Since many of our majors are motivated to pursue PPE because they want to contribute to social change in areas they care about, we have included a 5 course thematic concentration in the major. Here, students work with a faculty advisor to propose a set of five courses that together approach some social issue from a variety of angles and disciplinary perspectives. These themes can vary widely, from climate justice, to democracy and wealth, to women’s education in Latin America. This feature of the major allows students to take the multi- and interdisciplinary tools they have developed in the rest of the major, and apply them in sustained ways to a problem that they care strongly about. (The paper for their final presentation will come out of this concentration.) And from the perspective of faculty starting a new program with few resources, it lets you take advantage of the range of relevant courses already available at your university.
Admitted drawbacks of our program
I’m proud of our program, but it’s also very far from perfect. In particular, I wish that we could do at least three more things for our students. First, I wish we had more opportunities to help them think interdisciplinarily. While the seminar is explicitly focused on developing this skill, it’s only one semester—and having a variety of individual courses that adopted an interdisciplinary PPE perspective could only help them. Second, I wish that we could create more of a sense of community and cohort among our majors. Given the thematic concentration and the different departments they take core courses in, our students may not frequently be together in class, and so won’t have the opportunities that many of our more traditional philosophy majors have to be in conversation with the same set of peers over the course of several years. We are trying to find the resources for more extracurricular opportunities here, by doing things like bringing in PPE speakers, or holding reading groups—but again, this takes resources in short supply, and it would be better if we could include elements within the major itself to do the same thing. And finally, it’s hard to staff even the very basic new elements we’ve added. While the PPE seminar is being taught in-load, we don’t currently have any formal way of helping graduating seniors to develop the papers and posters they will present. While this is manageable in the first year or two, as the numbers of majors quickly rises this will very soon become unmanageable, and we’ll very soon need to find more faculty hours somewhere.
There are some other wonderful, much better resourced and more fully-developed undergraduate PPE programs out there. See, for instance, the programs at Northeastern University and the University at Buffalo. For those who are interested in developing a PPE program and who have funds and lines to do it, I highly recommend looking at what they have done. But for the rest of us, know that the perfect doesn’t need to be the enemy of the good—there’s a lot you can do even with just a shoe-string.