Harvey P. Weingarten — Undergraduate programs: Plus ça change…

Harvey P. Weingarten
Harvey P. Weingarten, President & CEO

I graduated from McGill University in 1974 with a B.Sc. in Honours Psychology. In a flight of fancy, I decided to see whether that program still exists and, if so, how the current program compares to the one I graduated from 43 years ago. These are the trips down memory lane one is increasingly inclined to take when one hits milestone birthdays.

First, a methodological note. In 1974, the calendar of courses was available in print only (not even the most crazed futurist contemplated the online availability of information) and there was a separate calendar for undergraduate and graduate studies. The undergraduate calendar listed not only the courses taught that year by department, but also which professor would be teaching which course — very helpful for those who selected courses based on the instructor as much as on the course content. I thank the tenacious Rosie Goldstein for getting me a copy of these calendars from the dusty archives. In 2017, the calendar is available online only; no printed version exists. Courses are listed by department but no indication of who teaches what; I suppose that exists elsewhere or students are just surprised when they walk into the first class.

An honours program in psychology is still on the books! The calendar prose describing the context and purpose of the honours degree is eerily similar in the 1974 and 2017 calendars. In 1974 and 2017, students could enrol in the program through either a B.Sc. or BA stream by applying to the department for entry. The criteria for getting into the honours program (by application to the department), the requirements and structure of the programs are also quite similar. In 1974, the accepted entering cohort of honours students was limited to 35–40 students. A defining feature of the 1974 program were classes restricted to honours students and each student was required to conduct independent research with a faculty member in each of the final two years of the program. In 2017, the entering cohort to the honours program was 37 students. Students were required to conduct at least a year of research with a faculty member, but most students still opted for two years of supervised research.

In 1974, the Psychology Department listed 33 full-time “teaching staff” (12 professors, 14 associate professors, seven assistant professors), one lecturer, five sessional lecturers and three clinical consultants. In 2017, the department listed 29 full-time “faculty” (16 professors, eight associate professors, five assistant professors), one lecturer, seven professionals, and eight associated member institutions listing 27 individuals and six adjunct professors.

In 1974, the department offered 55 undergraduate courses, 41 taught by the cohort of professors (full, associate and assistants). In 2017, the department offered 67 undergraduate courses, 35 taught by the cohort of professors (full, associate and assistant). The department offered 16 graduate courses in 1974, 47 in 2017.

From what we can tell, the average undergraduate course load for the professorial cohort in 1974 and 2017 was quite similar, two or three courses per year. I am not sure what the total enrolment in all psychology undergraduate courses was in these two time periods but I imagine that there has been a significant increase between these two years.

What trends emerge from this snapshot? Overall, the Honours Psychology program is more or less the same, described and structured in the same way. There are more students overall with no material change in the size of the full-time faculty complement. Many more courses are offered at the graduate level now than then. Undergraduate teaching loads for full-time faculty remain little changed; additional undergraduate teaching in 2017 is being done, apparently, by more associates and adjuncts. If this snapshot is correct, these are familiar trends.

Not captured in these numbers is the way an honours class was treated by the Psychology Department. Although, I am sure, none of us appreciated it at the time, the McGill Psychology Department in 1974 treated its honours undergraduate class like graduate students. Aside from the smaller, seminar-like courses we were offered, we were deeply immersed in research, with many formal and informal conversations about the discipline and extensive and frequent interactions and engagement with full-time faculty who were always around. I remember vividly a spontaneous discussion I and a number of my classmates had with Donald Hebb — a giant in the field — who helped us think through a psychology perception problem that had been set for us by a professor in another class (the meeting began by him running around to various offices to secure enough seats for us all to sit in his office). These interactions, taking place mostly outside the classroom, shaped our thinking not only about the discipline, but more broadly about behavioural analysis, research and experimentation in general, and, dare I say, life choices. I hope all of this is still true in 2017.

One other thing. When the young folks at HEQCO see this analysis they ask if any professors who taught in 1974 are still on the active faculty list. The answer is yes, and N>1.

Thanks for reading.

I thank Gurpreet Sahmbi, a talented HEQCO summer intern, for assistance in preparing this blog.

3 replies on “Harvey P. Weingarten — Undergraduate programs: Plus ça change…”

So, what does this mean? Is it a good thing that it hasn’t really changed? Or not so good? Forty-three years later and the program is virtually identical, at least from what you are able to surmise. Should it be after 43 years? Or is it a program that hangs on due to faculty inertia (lack of?) and perpetuity?

I’m not sure what the answer is. Several questions persist: how many psychology degrees do we need in this day and age? How many psych graduates work in their field? Is psychology as a degree an academic or vocational endeavor?

All of this in an era where degrees will arguably be more rationed by field. It can be argued that it is not in the public interest (as taxpayers providing subsidies and direct payments to institutions and students) to put far too many people into a certain university or college program if the jobs are largely unavailable, which begs the question is academics for public good a “good” enough rationale?


Two or three years ago, I was a member of a Committee that was mandated to evaluate the McGill Psychology Department (a regularly scheduled occurrence). And although not in the honours stream at McGill during my stay there a few years before Harvey Weingarten (I left to graduate school in 1969), I took about half dozen Psych. courses during my undergraduate stay. The Committee not only evaluated the documents provided by the department but met with the Dean and other administrative staff, the faculty members, departmental technical staff, delegations of graduate and undergraduate students. And at least the external psychology members on the committee, compared the department to others in Canada–one of which I was Chair at the time-and internationally. Although some of the stellar researchers of my day are gone or retired (Hebb, Melzack, Bindra et al) they have been replaced by top notch scholars who take their responsibilities as scholars, researchers, teachers and mentors as seriously as those in the good old days. I can assure whoever reads my response , that the students at McGill today are very well-served indeed.

If I may respond a second time, I would like to address the point made by Mr Swail. The program has not changed in certain ways–eg the teaching load of faculty members where everyone teaches 3 courses, including CRCs and other distinguished award holders- and students still are required to do research projects. But the course content of what was taught in 1970 is radically different than what is taught in 2017, and the course offerings updated to reflect the growth and changes in the discipline. McGill undergraduates still are readily accepted in graduate programs–and other programs, disciplines and occupations. One not only teaches “psychology”, one teaches how to analyze problems, see flaws in logic, construct alternative solutions, obtain technical skills with modern technology and statistical techniques, speak in public, defend ideas-=-all valuable assets in almost any occupation of today and I suspect for the foreseeable future. When we start “rationing” degrees I hope we don’t do it by simple-minded categorizing by discipline or even more simple minded bean counting algorithms.

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