I am a tenured full professor in the humanities, teaching at an elite liberal arts institution. Currently our department is struggling to attract majors and student scholars in our particular humanities field, for a number of reasons - the academic work is perceived as exotic, irrelevant vis a vis the more valuable STEM fields, and considered intellectually "useless" for those whose primary goal is "getting jobs" after graduation. I would still like to teach courses in my area, because I consider this to be valuable. My institution permits me to teach whatever I wish, but our students have requested courses that are more general and more suited for non-majors and non-scholars. Does it make more sense to offer courses for those few students who desire deep study in narrow topics, or should I cater to student demands for general classes that appeal to non-humanities undergraduates? I do not wish for my courses to be seen as irrelevant, but I resist "trends" and the constantly shifting and sometimes fickle interests of the students in popular subject matter.
I'm not sure what your discipline is, but I understand the situation you're describing. Does your school have a general education-type program in which you could offer some tantalizing courses? We've had a lot of success with a course on "banned books," "Shakespeare on Film," or "The Vampire Tradition." Such courses, if interesting enough, might bring more students into your major. I taught a "Fundamentals of Lit" class that was intended for non-majors, and I had Engineering and Computer Science students who told me it was the first time they'd read a story in college and they really enjoyed the class.
The other point you raise somewhat indirectly -- the value of the study of humanities. This is one of those "don't get me started" kinds of topics, because I believe the value of it is tremendous in a number of ways, but most important to other majors is the increased ability to communicate effectively. Business majors may get what seems to be a "good-paying job" upon graduation, but without the communication and critical thinking skills they would learn in the Humanities, they're not going to progress very far.
This question seems too general for a proper answer, but here are a few comments that point to my belief in having to weigh options and make compromises:
- As someone in a STEM field (pure math) at a large state school, I still find it difficult to some things I want to teach, even at the graduate level, and have to make comprises for what would best serve our students (or at least serve our students reasonably well). This is not just about the level at which I can teach courses, but about what kinds of topics I can cover.
- Interesting courses for non-majors can often attract students to take more classes in an area, possibly resulting in an increase in the number of majors, and thus more opportunities for advanced classes later. This is one thing some departments focus on to help grow their major.
- In many departments, getting enough students to run advanced courses is a challenge. I don't know if this is a concern for you, but if so, you need to read the situation, because you may not even have the option to run the courses you want in the near future. Related to the previous comment, one can often try to generate interest for a specific course by motivating it in a more popular introductory course.
- I personally like teaching different things and experimenting with my courses, so often I will try to mix material that I like with the material that the students come into the class wanting to learn. (And of course, I try to motivate this well.)
- Different classes, as well as different majors, have different goals. It may be okay to have some small specialized classes (and in fact good if there are a small but serious group of students who want to pursue these topics), but if all the classes in a department are like that with shrinking enrollments, the department will probably shrink too.