- It depends on what you mean by normal.
It’s normal for majors to fluctuate both gradually over long periods of time and sometimes in sharper or more punctuated ways, in the sense that this has happened continuously over the 20th Century in higher education. It is also normal to misremember or impressionistically amplify numbers of majors. Long-serving faculty sometimes think they taught more students in the distant past than they actually did, and newer faculty sometimes do not have enough experiential perspective on shifts in enrollments or number of majors. Check the data, not just for your own institution but others. If the numbers were always small, be humble: it’s hard to say anything rigorous about the difference between eight majors one year and five the next.
- Look for trends. Borrow someone else’s data analysis skills if need be, because it’s easy to see a trend where you can’t really prove that there is one. Beware of anecdotal evidence in proclaiming a trend even while you respect its importance otherwise. A single student making a single seemingly off-handed remark about why your discipline is no longer worth their time can legitimately feel momentous. It can make meaning where previously none existed. It can feel like one of the Four Horseman just showed up and doffed his cap. But look for other ways to verify trends–get outside your own head and fears a bit.
- Better still, look to public academia, and some of statements made by your peers and colleagues like Benjamin Schmidt who have devoted considerable time and effort to evaluating trends in the disciplines. The American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association, the National Academics of Science, Engineering and Medicine and many other professional associations have provided data-rich analyses of trends across and within institutions. This is core to our identity as scholars, that we trust our distributed networks to produce knowledge and that we charge ourselves as individuals to consult that knowledge when we want to be sure that what we think is true is in fact true.
- So you’ve done your diligence and in fact there’s a downward trend in your discipline generally and your department is a typical example of the trend. Move to the next question: do you need majors? Why do you feel you need them? In any given academic institution, there are departments that teach large numbers of students but have relatively few majors of their own. We often refer to such departments as “service departments”. In some institutions, those kinds of departments are frequently a major target of administrative pushes towards casualization. That’s certainly a bad thing and should be fought with all tools at your command. If however your institution remains committed to having most teaching done by tenure-track faculty, then what’s the difference between many majors and few majors if you are in any event doing substantial instructional labor?There is a difference in the way that labor feels, and in most of academia, faculty assign a prestige value to the mentoring of students within their disciplines as opposed to teaching skills or material to a student who is going on to do something completely different. It’s not clear that we should feel that way or why we do, so maybe you can take a step back and rethink your own assumptions. But those feelings are not just your own: they can and do affect how resources, opportunities and influence are distributed. So you have to care.Now if you are in fact declining in majors and in average enrollments, you certainly have a problem. Maybe. If you’re tenured, depending on how much you care and why you care about what happens after you’re retired. If you’re tenure-track, depending on how you look at your next two to three decades of labor. If you’re contingent or in graduate school, it’s not a matter of perspective, you have a serious problem. More in a bit.
- Look at your FTEs in relationship to the data you’ve found. Is your department much smaller than its peers at other institutions? Is it much larger? Both of those are meaningful pieces of information. Faculty tend to think that the FTEs in their department are a sort of “Goldilocks minus 1” situation: almost just right if only they were given one more line. This is a fairly improbable assumption if it is held universally, that in every institution, the resources you have right this moment are almost exactly what you need except that you need just a bit more. You can’t know exactly what to feel about this data until you know what your department looks like compared to most others of its kind.
- What else has changed in your context? Have you had a bunch of recent hires? A bunch of recent retirements? Have you lost a tenure line in previous allocations? Do you have too many people teaching the same content? No one teaching an area of the discipline that is known to students or in demand with them? Is there something odd about the times your department schedules classes that has changed? Is there something visibly different in how the institution relates to your department that’s a local difference? Especially at small institutions, a trend can arise from very small “butterfly effect” changes.
Once you’re sure that there’s a trend, that it’s a trend that really ought to worry you, and that you’d like to do something about it, what then? Ah, that’s a matter for another answer.