A View of PEIS (the Political Economy of Industrial Societies Major)--Spring 2001

J. Bradford DeLong


The PEIS Major

Some of the minor powers-that-be here at Berkeley have asked that I chair the PEIS--Political Economy of Industrial Societies--undergraduate major for next year. They have hit me in a weak spot, so I am going to agree. After all, I have long believed that our current disciplinary boundaries make no sense as far as undergraduate education is concerned, that we do our B.A.s no good service when we let them leave knowing a lot of one and little of the other social science disciplines, and that those social science students who do sign up for interdisciplinary majors are among the most intellectually curious and motivated students around (and thus the ones for whom efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate education are likely to have the greatest effect), and that the interdisciplinary social science programs that are the best hope for undergraduates are (for institutional reasons).

Besides, who else? I have to agree that in picking me the Berkeley process has made a good (if not the best) decision.

The PEIS major follows a not atypical pattern for interdisciplinary social science majors. First come basic background courses in economics (Econ 1, 100a, and 100b), political science (PS 2), and modern world history (IAS 45). These are followed by a core of "theory" (PEIS 100 and 101)--an intellectual history-based survey of the major analytical approaches to understanding what modern economies, polities, and societies are about (coupled with a study of the political doctrines and philosophies that are joined at the hip to these analytical approaches)--institutions (how governments, markets, and societies interact), and modern history (Econ 115, Hist 160, Hist 161).

Then comes an "emphasis": at least a full semester's worth of study of a particular area or problem or subject to enable the student to acquire knowledge that is deep in one respect rather than broad only, and to force a degree of synthesis as historical and institutional knowledge and analytical approaches are pressed into the service of understanding some particular historical or contemporary process. The student's undergraduate career hopefully ends in a thesis: a sustained piece of writing that builds research skills and serves as a dry run for the future projects the student wil undertake.

My Survey

In order to figure out how PEIS is working, I sent out a survey to a list (kindly provided by Tim Lane) of this year's graduating seniors, asking them what they thought of the program in retrospect. I only got about twenty responses back--a 25% response rate. So the survey is no good as a statistical sample for understanding what PEIS majors think of the program. But it is a nice source of information on what is thought by those majors motivated enough to reply (either because of their background sociability, or because of positive or negative experiences in the major).

The first question I asked was, "Why did you choose to major in PEIS?" The answers I got back told me that by and large these students had decided to major in PEIS for the right reasons. The students mentioned:

The advantages they saw in the program are for the most part the advantages that I see in interdisciplinary social science majors: breadth of vision, importance of different perspectives, providing a firm grounding for understanding and analysis, flexibility to pursue their own interests. Moreover, by and large the students were not disappointed. The aspects of the major that they cite in retrospect as valuable are those that led them to choose the major. Students valued:

Moreover, students loved many of the courses they took for the PEIS major. Those course/professor combinations mentioned more than once as the best courses were Heath Pearson's History 160 (The World Economy in the 20th Century) (3), Beverly Crawford's PEIS 100 (Classical Theories of Political Economy) (7), Alan Karras's PEIS 100 (Classical Theories of Political Economy) (4), Heath Pearson's PEIS 100 (Classical Theories of Political Economy) (2), Steve Weber's PS 120a (International Relations) (4), Alan Karras's IAS 45 (World History) (4), Heath Pearson's IAS 45 (World History) (3), Heath Pearson's PEIS 101 (Modern Theories of Political Economy) (5), and Kiren Chaudhry's PS 139b (Development Politics) (3). (Note that one of the students who loved Chaudhry said that in retrospect she should have postponed taking it until her senior year because it requires "...a great deal of base knowledge. Her class is a lot to handle, but well worthwhile…")

(Students also disliked some of their courses: Economics 100a, Economics 100b, and Statistics 20 came under particularly heavy fire. Even the courses that got votes as the best were not immune: One responding student each loathed Karras's IAS 45, Pearson's IAS 45, and Pearson's PEIS 101. And two responding students loathed Weber's PS 120a.)

So I conclude from these survey responses that as an intellectual program PEIS is fundamentally sound: students (at least the students who respond to the survey) are finding the program valuable, and are finding the program valuable in those areas and aspects in which--if the program is to be successful--they should find it valuable.

Problems with the Program

This doesn't mean that the program is in good shape. Cicero wrote that the sinews of war are unlimited money. The same holds true for education. If class sizes are too large, if classes that people need for their emphases are offered irregularly and spottily, if the advising staff is overstretched, if students are excluded for budgetary reasons, if the teaching faculty are overworked--then the program limps. What ought to be, given the soundness of the underlying intellectual project and the quality of students attracted, one of the crown jewels of Berkeley undergraduate education, is not. A grossly underfunded program is not something that the High Administtrators of Berkeley can be proud of.

Some of this underfunding is structural. Berkeley is a public university, without the huge endowment resources of the major private universities. First priority in the use of Berkeley's finances must be dealing with the earthquake threat: it is important to keep our buildings from killing us all the next time the Hayward fault lets loose. Second priority in the use of Berkeley's finances must be senior faculty retention and recruitment: without a first-class senior faculty you cannot have a first-class university, and senior faculty are aware of and use their bargaining power to make their lives easier and more fun.

But it is not all structural. There are third and fourth priorities. In a well-run university, financial decisions are made with a view toward balance among the university's different missions and with an awareness of the importance of maintaining a diversified intellectual portfolio. (It is, however, not clear to me that there are any well-run universities.) In a not so well run university, financial decisions are made as a result of deanly and faculty struggles to enhance the strength of intellectual factions and as moves in games of favor exchange. And PEIS has no seats at these tables because it has no senior faculty deeply tied to and committed to it. Hence it gets the short end of the stick. In fact, one prominent ex-interdisciplinary major chair at another university told me I was crazy to take on the PEIS chairship given this lack of seats at the table of bureaucratic politics.

The underfunding of PEIS creates problems in many ways. One area that appears to be particularly stressed is the advising staff. By and large the students who responded to my survey valued and appreciated the advising staff: five students noted that the advisors did not have the time to spend to do an optimal job, or that too few advisors were asked to have knowledge about too many courses.

A second place where students felt that the major fell down was in its lack of resources: too few upper division courses, too many courses needed for the major offered only once every two years or so, too many departments (especially economics) that seemed to be unhelpful to PEIS students wanting to pursue their programs, too many professors notionally associated with PEIS who in fact were not so. "Designed well, but not optimally implemented" was one student's view of the major.

The shortage of resources also leads to deeper intellectual failings in the program. As one student put it, "we take many different classes, but we never 'put it all together'. Students are not asked or challenged to think through the problems of syntheizing the perspectives of the different disciplines..." A second student deplored the fact that "PEIS has little or no quantitative, problem solving element.Whenever I talk to my PEIS major friends, I always hear qualitative comments, broad generalizations, no use of numbers, statistics, or quantitative models..." Some faculty perspectives are harsher: one potential advisor for PEIS senior theses finds that PEIS students by and large lack the archival skills and the analytical skills they need to successfully complete a senior thesis.

The reasons for these intellectual failings are pretty clear. The program lacks the staff to teach the research methodology courses--the IAS 102s--effectively. They are at least twice the size that they should be, and so do less than half the job of teaching students the archival and analytical skills that they would need. Other departments do not teach courses PEIS majors need frequently enough, and PEIS has no staff to teach its own upper-division courses. Some departments, focused on teaching their own majors, make it extremely difficult for PEIS majors to get into courses even when they are offered. Moreover, PEIS lacks a core stable of thesis advisors that it needs in order to make the thesis for honors students a truly productive and worthwhile experience. As it is, theses are largely hit-or-miss affairs--and it is next to impossible to build up a core of thesis advisors as long as students are not well prepared to write theses.

What To Do?

Clearly the first thing that needs to be done is to get more resources for PEIS: to convince the High Administrators that it is not only pound-foolish but penny-foolish to starve a program that could with a very slight additional expenditure of resources easily be one of the crown jewels of social science education at Berkeley--be a powerful and important asset in fulfilling Berkeley's education mission, and be a reputation builder for the University of California. President Summers of Harvard and President Randel of Chicago are justifiably proud of their universities' programs in Social Studies and Social Thought. Chancellor Berdhal of Berkeley cannot say the same thing about PEIS.

At a minimum, PEIS needs a larger advising staff: it is in no one's interest that they are stretched as thinly as they appear to be, and if you listen to the students who responded to the survey the load on the advising staff does seem to be a weak point.

But there are other points as weak as well. At a minimum, PEIS needs to be offering twice as many sections IAS 102--the research methodology course--as it is. When the size of each section gets above fifteen, quality of instruction and the usefullness of the course declines very rapidly indeed. At a minimum, other departments need to do a significantly better job of teaching courses that PEIS majors need for their emphases--and of letting PEIS majors into courses that they do teach.

But more important, in the long run PEIS needs seats at the table where factions fight over resources. (Alternatively, the process by which resources are allocated could be improved.) And that requires that PEIS become an interesting and important enough intellectual endeavor that senior faculty take ownership of it. And this will not be easy: senior faculty will not take ownership of anything that is not a first-class program, and a program starved of resources and without powerful senior faculty patrons cannot become first class.

Survey of Graduating Seniors in PEIS--Spring 2001

Why Did You Choose to Major in PEIS?

What Were the Most Valuable Aspects of the Major? Ten Views:

What Reforms Are Needed? Ten Views:

What Were the Best Courses You Took for the Major?

Courses That More Than One Person Said Were Among Their Worst:

What Did You Think of the Advising Staff? Ten Views:

But also:

What Other Question Should I Have Asked on This Survey?

"Knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?"

"How marketable is the PEIS major to future employers?"