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Students set their own courses by self-designing majors

Searching through Bowdoin’s course catalog, you might have trouble finding classes in Socialization and Human Development, Bioethics or Native American Studies. However, in the past 30 years, students wishing to pursue a program that did not fit the pattern of an existing departmental major have proposed and completed courses of study like these. Since 1979, the College has authorized a student-designed major process in which a student can collaborate with two faculty members to develop a major program that draws on the offerings of at least two different departments.  

In the past 15 years, more student-designed majors have come from humanities departments. But according to Associate Dean of Academic Affairs James Higginbotham, there are plenty of opportunities from other departments.  

“They’re really all over the map… It bridges disciplines between the social sciences, the humanities, and the sciences,” said Higginbotham, who is also an associate professor in the classics department. 

Laura Griffee ’17 is one of only three student-designed majors on campus. Her major, Computing and Media Arts, combines the computer science and visual arts departments. Fellow junior Catherine Cyr has also declared a student-designed major combining history, art history, English and government into an overarching American Studies major. Sophomore Jenny Ibsen recently declared a self-designed major in Urban Studies.

The student-designed major is not a process for the faint of heart. The student-design process begins at the end of sophomore fall, while most students are in the midst of exams, declaring majors and narrowing down study abroad options. 

Griffee said that designing her own major was an intense process.

“I think that Bowdoin makes it a challenging thing to do because they want to make sure you put the thought and effort into it. You’re basically getting a degree out of it, and they want to make sure that what you set out for yourself is something that’s really going to contribute to your education,” she said. 

The first step in the student-designed major process involves putting together a proposal that resembles, in general, the structure of any other majors available at Bowdoin. The proposal includes dictating exactly what one is planning to do with his or her student-designed major and how Bowdoin’s curriculum might be too limiting without it.  

For Cyr, her post-Bowdoin goals were what ultimately led her to design her own major. “I’m looking to go into the museum career field. I really want to be a curator, and I really like the idea of taking an object, whether it be art or material culture, learning the history about it and creating a story for other people to fall in love with,” she said.

While initially considering an art history and history double major, Cyr eventually realized that this would restrict what she wanted to get out of Bowdoin’s liberal arts education. “I didn’t want to limit myself by saying for the rest of my time here after coming back from abroad, I could take four non-historic, non-art classes…so I decided with my advisors to try it out,” Cyr said.

The next step of the student-design process involves indicating every class that is intended to become a part of the major and explaining why each class is going to be beneficial.Higginbotham emphasized that this step is crucial to the development of the major.

“There is a danger when you create the student-designed major that if a course is not offered or a faculty member is not here when you need it, then you put yourself in a bind,” he said.“[This step] is great in a way because it helps you get a sense of what you want to do and what you see yourself doing your next few years at Bowdoin,” Griffee said. “You basically design a curriculum, which is kind of crazy.”

After the proposal is complete, it is submitted to the Curriculum Implementation Committee, which then decides either to reject the proposal altogether or to offer suggestions on what to change before accepting it.

“It’s stressful especially in the beginning because you don’t know after doing all this work if you’re even going to get it,” said Griffee. “I think we’re the first students in 10 years to have a student-designed major passed, and it’s been three since someone submitted a proposal.”Higginbotham believes that despite these low numbers, the student-design program is not meant to be discouraging. Instead, he sees the lack of applicants as evidence that students aren’t finding the curriculum limiting.

According to Higginbotham, as Bowdoin continues to periodically expand its departments, the student-designed major’s decrease in popularity can be attributed to students finding ways within the majors and minors that are offered by the College to accomplish their goals.Although the student-designed major process can be arduous, the students who take part believe it pays off.

“I would say if you’re passionate about it, it’s definitely worth it,” said Griffee.

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