Modified and special majors help students create their own paths

by Rachel Pakianathan | 2/9/18 2:30am

This article was featured in the 2018 Winter Carnival Issue.

The deliberate breadth of a liberal-arts education allows students to freely pursue a range of subjects that they find intellectually rewarding. While many Dartmouth students achieve this through the more than 60 defined majors at the College, others find their academic needs better answered through unique, interdisciplinary plans of study. For those whose interests cannot be fulfilled within a single discipline or department, the College allows the modification of existing majors and the design of special majors.

Major modifications have risen in popularity at the College in recent years. Associate dean for student academic support services and dean of undergraduate students Brian Reed said students often come to Dartmouth already knowing that they intend to modify an existing major.

“Each new class comes in, and they really understand that the problems that face our world are not going to be answered through one discipline or through one lens,” he said. “Incoming students look at it a lot more holistically now.”

Though some departments, including the government department, restrict modifications, others see them frequently. David Kotz ’86, interim provost and computer science professor, said he has seen students modify computer science with an increasingly diverse variety of fields in his time at Dartmouth.

“We have a few [modified majors] predefined because they’re pretty common, like ‘computer engineering,’ but there are basically infinite numbers of other combinations that are feasible,” he said. “I was surprised 20 years ago when I first saw a student propose modifying computer science with studio art, but now I wouldn’t be surprised at all.”

Proposed modified majors typically consist of 10 courses from two departments, with an emphasis in one department. Students who elect to modify a major must submit a written statement explaining why their modification presents a unified, coherent program.

Students seeking to design special interdisciplinary programs of study across more than two disciplines have the option to create a special major. Special majors comprise 10 interrelated courses chosen by the student and require both a primary and a secondary faculty advisor. The approval process includes a written proposal stating the purpose and objective of the special major.

Assistant dean of faculty for pre-major advising and history professor Cecilia Gaposchkin said she typically serves as the first point of contact for students who want advising for major modifications or special major proposals.

In a recent poll conducted by College Pulse for The Dartmouth from Jan. 29 to Feb. 7, 33 percent of 763 surveyed Dartmouth students said they have considered creating their own major or minor, but Gaposchkin said only about three to five special major proposals go through each year.

While major modifications are fairly straightforward, Gaposchkin said that special majors involve advanced work by the student and real commitment from faculty advisors. For a special major to be approved, she said, there must be an intellectual core to the program of study, and it must meet the same academic rigor as any existing major. She added that an interdisciplinary committee — a group of faculty which reviews special major proposals — must also believe that the student’s vision cannot already be achieved in an existing major or a modified major.

Reed agreed that although he has worked with students interested in proposing special majors, they often find that a modified major works just as well.

“We do offer a lot of different disciplines to either major in or modify a major in, and it becomes really challenging in some ways to comprise a special major that can’t be housed in one of our disciplines in some form or fashion,” Reed said.

Gaposchkin also noted that there are advising structures and advantages that come with being in a department, and students following special majors often have to rely on their advisors for that support system.

One of those students is Hannah Gallen ’19, who is currently working on designing her own “social entrepreneurship” special major. Gallen said that her advisors Andrew Samwick, economics professor and director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, and engineering professor Peter Robbie have been invaluable in helping her develop her major and research.

“Once you find people to back you here and once you find people who are willing to support your vision, it all becomes much easier,” she said.

Gallen said she chose to pursue a special major in addition to her declared major — comparative literature ­— because she believes in an interdisciplinary approach to study social innovation and exploring ways to measure and define social impact. Her approach, Gallen added, stems from a question: How does one quantify the impact on a human life?

“That question to me requires so much complex thinking from so many different disciplinary backgrounds that you could never hope to address it from just one of those perspectives,” she said. “It’s such an important question, especially in this day and age. The lines are getting blurred between the private, social and public sector.”

She said her proposed major draws courses from several departments, including anthropology, economics, engineering, geography and sociology.

“I was beginning to realize that I had a whole other side of curiosities, and that those curiosities were in individual departments,” Gallen said. “There was no existing major or minor situation that aptly drew parallels and connections over those departments and across those boundaries.”

Past approved special majors have ranged from “digital media and communication” to “human-centered design,” an existing minor at Dartmouth reconfigured as a special major, according to Gallen and the undergraduate dean’s office.

Another lesser-known opportunity students have to expand beyond the offerings of the normal Dartmouth curriculum is the Senior Fellowship, a program in which select students complete individualized projects their senior year in lieu of enrolling in courses and completing a major. To be a Senior Fellow, students must have a vision, diligence and structure of process that most people develop as a part of their professional lives, Gaposchkin said. She added that it is the right option for only a few students, but that it is a fulfilling experience for those individuals.

“[Senior Fellowships are] for students who are self-starters, who have a clear vision for the questions they want answered,” Reed said.

This year’s Senior Fellows are working on projects, including a case study investigating the inconsistent implementation of recognition laws concerning Native-American tribal termination, a science fiction and fantasy novel that looks at the relationship between music, literature and mathematics, a choreopoem that explores the lives of women of color and clothing trends in the United States from the late 19th century to the early 21st century and a project to reconstruct and contextualize the writings and memoirs of prolific Chilean writer “Iris” Inés Echeverría Bello.

Reed added that the Senior Fellows program is a testament to his belief that the major you graduate in is less important than students like to believe.

“I have so many stories about the English major who’s in finance or the economics major teaching history,” he said. “I encourage students to follow their intellectual bliss, and you’ll find your vocation somewhere.”