It's almost that time of year again?no, not the holiday season.
When sophomores return back to campus from winter break, they will receive cards in their mailboxes instructing them on the major declaration process. Some will pursue double majors, others will elect to complete an interdisciplinary concentration and others will be devising their own path of study.
The student-designed major, a part of the Bowdoin academic curriculum since 1978, allows for students to pursue an interdisciplinary concentration of their own construction. Minutes from a faculty meeting in the fall of 1978 reveal that the original intention of the student-designed major program was to both "diversify the curriculum" and "offer an opportunity for student originality."
On a national scale, the face of university curriculums underwent a number of transformations in the late 70s as higher education took on a more liberal nature. Student-led movements, such as the Third World Liberation Front at the University of California at Berkeley, pushed for more interdisciplinary academic programs that encompassed previously neglected classroom topics such as non-Eurocentric studies.
Likewise, one of the initial intents of the student-designed major program at Bowdoin was to allow for the pursuit of interdisciplinary studies.
"This was a big deal in 1978, as the College didn't have as many interdisciplinary programs as we do now," said Registrar Christine Cote. "The student-designed major allowed people to pursue majors in Women's studies, Asian studies, Gay and Lesbian studies, et cetera."
Today, the interdisciplinary goals of the student-designed major remain the same as they were with the inception of the program in the late 70s. However, the nature of the program has since changed over the years. The expansion of the Bowdoin curriculum?which now encompasses 33 academic departments?has made designing a major increasingly complex.
"Given that there are so many major and minor options at Bowdoin today, as opposed to in 1978, it is often very hard for students to show that their proposed major cannot be done within the normal curricular structures," said Cote.
The proposal of the student-designed major includes a written statement explaining the goals of the desired major program and why the proposed goals cannot be met with standard major options.
It is the nature of this initial proposal process that discourages many Bowdoin students from pursuing a student-designed major. A number of students described the declaration process, which begins in the fall of sophomore year, as "frustrating" and "complicated."
A complete proposal, submitted to the Curriculum Implementation Committee (CIC), consists of a complete list of courses, an outline of a capstone synthesizing project to be completed senior year and letters written by faculty sponsors in support of the student's agenda. The CIC then evaluates the proposal, and sends it back to the student for further honing and modification.
"More often than not, proposals are not approved on the first pass," said Cote.
This aspect of the process deterred Julia Littlefield '11, who was considering pursuing a student-designed major in Urban Studies.
"Designing a proposal seemed like a huge hassle," she said. "I can understand why the process seems as complicated as it is, so that students have to put in the time and effort to show that they have enough motivation to create the proposal, but it is still an intimidating and lengthy process."
Nora Krulwich '11, who submitted a proposal for a major in Socialization and Human Development earlier this month, admitted that the procedure was lengthy and complicated. Krulwich also noted that the intricacies of the procedure, however bothersome they may be, are important.
"The proposal process is good for making sure students are really serious and passionate about their topic," she said.
Krulwich's proposed major, which is currently under consideration by the CIC, would combine the fields of sociology, psychology and education to study how people integrate into their own culture.
Krulwich has been developing her own curriculum this fall, working closely with Professor of Sociology Nancy Riley, Assistant Professor of Education Charles Dorn and Associate Professor of Psychology Samuel Putnam.
As a part of the proposal, Krulwich devised a list of specific courses to create a curriculum she would follow for the rest of her time at Bowdoin. According to Cote, creating this list of proposed courses represents a difficulty for many students who consider self-designed majors.
Zac Skipp '11 spoke to this potentially restrictive factor, saying, "I would hope the self-designed major would be a liberating experience, but being limited to a path of specific courses I've planned two years in advance is worrisome."
Skipp is in the process of submitting a proposal for a major that would combine film studies and art history.
Like many other students, Skipp lamented about the complexity of the procedure but noted that the overall process has had a valuable aspect of self-reflection.
"Overall, this has really given me a greater perspective on what I want to do, both at Bowdoin and in the future," he said.
Krulwich agreed, saying, "Developing my proposal for the major helped me understand exactly what I was interested in and what I was hoping to get out of my education here."
Rachel Bryan-Auker '10, who is pursuing a major in Native American Studies, is studying native peoples in the context of economics and anthropology.
"I decided to design my own major to study what I learned to be truly relevant to my life and education," she said.
It is this development and articulation of academic goals that Associate Professor of Film Studies Tricia Welsch sees as the most valuable aspect of the self-designed concentration.
"The self-designed major encourages students to be very dynamic in articulating and understanding their educational goals and interests," said Welsch. "The proposal process encourages students to take an active role of their education in a very unique way."
Welsch acknowledged the difficulty and complexity of the proposal process, saying, "The College makes it difficult, but that is appropriate for the nature of the major."
"There are a lot of hurdles along the way, but these are hurdles that guarantee the coherence of an undergraduate education," she added.
But for those who clear these hurdles, the proposal and completion of the student-designed major is ultimately rewarding.
"It's a great way to take ownership of your own ideas, to think about your goals and ambitions," Welsch said.