Build Your Own Major

by Abbey Cahill | 5/10/16 5:05pm

Noelle Anderson ’18 has an enrapturing sense of authenticity. She paints whale sharks. She dances on tables. She has stayed overnight in the Black Family Visual Arts Center. She modifies all the items on the menu when she goes out to eat, and she unapologetically wears crocs in the studio.

I tried to write a story about people who use Dartmouth courses to invent their own majors (i.e. “social entrepreneurship”) but I quickly found that special majors are like unicorns: famous and intriguing, but elusive. Maybe even mythical. In my limited experience, these people are nowhere to be found. In a bout of frustration, I reached out to Lynn Higgins, associate dean for interdisciplinary programs, who assured me that special majors do exist — it just takes a lot to get them approved. She explained that students propose special majors when they have an interest that doesn’t fit into existing majors.

Higgins noted that proposals that get approved are typically in very specific fields that tend to be up-and-coming.

“Most special major proposals that gain approval are in fields we might call ‘emerging,’ like digital arts,” Higgins explained. “They’re out there, and although we have faculty specialists in the fields, we don’t yet have a major.”

Anderson originally considered creating an “art advocacy” major but realized that her needs could be fulfilled by combining classes from the geography and studio art departments. In high school, she spent a semester abroad at the Island School in the Bahamas and became fascinated by issues of sustainability. She was particularly inspired by a class in which students explored the relationship between art and the environment, constructing projects from recycled or biodegradeable materials or making art to capture an experience in nature. She explained that making something both aesthetically pleasing and practically useful can be demanding.

“That’s when I started to really think about making art that mattered,” Anderson told me. “When a piece of art has to be more than interesting, has to be more than beautiful, that’s when the challenge really increases.”

So, Anderson returned home to Massachusetts and challenged herself. She finished her senior year of high school with a collection of photographs for a project titled “Eco-feminism.” Eco-feminism to Anderson is the idea that male-dominated societies oppress women and the environment in very similar ways. We speak about conquering the land and exploring “Mother Earth.” Women and the earth are both expected to be endlessly fruitful and productive for men, Anderson said. If the land is less beautiful, it is less natural. If the woman is less beautiful, she is less feminine. She defied these notions in a series of nude photographs taken in natural settings.

Eighteen hundred miles away in Dallas, Kendall Ernst ’18 was also having an unusual senior year of high school. She had somehow evaded her language and science requirements in order to double up on math and start taking computer science. She said this is typical of her atypical academic trajectory.

“I’ve never really taken a conventional path with my academics,” Ernst told me.

She said she remembers the moment she first thought of merging computer science and economics. In Ernst’s high school computer science class, one of the first coding assignments was to prove the Monty Hall paradox, a famous problem she’d discussed in economics classes but had never quite understood. Modeling the problem with code helped her understand how the paradox worked. She was hooked on the interaction between the two fields. When she got to Dartmouth, she loaded up on computer science and economics classes, ending up with a modified major that combined the two fields.

Anderson arrived at Dartmouth at the same time as Ernst and started looking for classes that would allow her to explore the intersection of sustainability, social justice and art. She decided to declare a major in geography modified with studio art. Geography would give her knowledge about problems in our world, and art would allow her to give shape to those problems and call viewers to take action against them. She calls it “artivism,” a term she picked up from her work with street artists in New Zealand.

A few months ago, an organization called PangeaSeed reached out to Anderson, asking her to paint a wall mural in Napier, New Zealand for its most recent project, “Sea Walls: Murals for Oceans.” The “Seed” in PangeaSeed stands for “Sustainability, Education, Ecology, Design” and the foundation is interested in using art to raise awareness and inspire positive change around important ocean environmental issues. As the one emerging artist amongst 30 professional street artists, Anderson found the experience both nerve-wracking and exciting. She spent days covered in blue paint, creating a large-scale image that she hopes will change mindsets — specifically, widespread indifference — towards whale sharks.

“Our earth is precious, beautiful, resilient, astounding, yet under anthropogenic stressors like never before,” Anderson urged. “The removal of these apex predators would lead to total marine ecosystem collapse.”

Combining two fields to create a major is empowering because it allows students to pursue very specific interests. Ernst said the ability to choose her own academic path is essential. She explained that her interest in economics was confined to specific disciplines; she loved studying composition, strategy and game theory, but she wasn’t as excited about other classes in the major. By combining it with computer science, she ensured that she was invested in all of her classes at all times, which is how it should be.

“I never want to feel like I’m taking a class at Dartmouth solely because I have to,” Ernst said. “So combining the two subject areas has really helped me focus on what I loved.”

People are inherently multidimensional. We have multiple interests, skills, hobbies and ways of connecting with others. We like painting and strategic thinking, coding and protesting, traveling and writing. Modified majors give people the opportunity to pursue their interests more holistically.

“In the real world, nothing exists in isolation,” Ernst said. “For me, it doesn’t make sense to me to learn any other way.”