Yale College has so many majors that a University report in 2000 recommended the possible elimination of 12 or more.
But for a tiny minority of students, Yale’s current majors are not enough.
Each year about 20 or 25 students come to Ezra Stiles College Dean Susan Rieger, the director of undergraduate studies of the Special Divisional Majors Program, with an idea for an independently designed course of study. Rieger said in an e-mail that only about two or three of these students actually submit their proposals to the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing each year, and Bioethics major Alexandra Miller ’02 currently is the only student completing such a program.
And while the Blue Book says that the special divisional major option is available to all students “whose academic interests cannot be met by an existing departmental or special major,” some Yalies said they have found their alternative academic plans difficult to realize at Yale.
The lengthy application process, including a requirement of two academic advisers, is one reason some students said they were hesitant to apply. Rules also state that transcripts will only say “special divisional major” and not specify the student’s particular field of concentration.
Despite the long process, Sam Carner ’01 gained approval for his proposal, and said he was thrilled with his program of study. Carner completed a major in “music, verse and drama” and now is studying in a program at New York University for people who write musicals.
But experiences with the small program have varied, with Carner and others praising it, and others bemoaning a system they say limits their ability to pursue real academic interests.
A select group
Carner said he planned to be an English major, but by the end of his four years at Yale he had counted classes as different as “Modern Poetry” and “Music Theory” toward his approved special divisional major.
“I had a coherent program, maybe even more coherent than some Yale majors like American studies,” Carner said.
Carner, who wrote his first musical when he was 12, said he felt liberated by his major but added that special divisional majors are “not for everyone.”
“A special divisional major is a great deal of work and not many students, once they’ve realized how much is entailed, decide to go forward with the application,” she said. “I’m hoping that the three [students] that did follow through this year will all get approval.”
A difficult process
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson ’03 said he plans to apply for a special divisional major in “subaltern studies,” but said he was not optimistic about his chances for having the program approved.
One potential problem is his proposed concentration’s relatively late arrival to academia. The discipline examines experiences of oppression and subordination throughout history.
Schneider-Mayerson said he thought the approval process was unnecessarily long.
“[The committee] makes you go through hoops and jumps to the point where it’s almost false advertising for them to say that you can create your own major at Yale,” he said.
Schneider-Mayerson also said he believes the committee will object to his proposal because it stands in direct ideological opposition to the lessons he said programs like Directed Studies try to impart.
“D.S. allowed for very little dissent,” he said. “But I believe that ideas don’t necessarily move history, people do.”
Sticking to the road more traveled
Josh Drimmer ’03 said he shied away from the special divisional major in “Modernity studies” he considered during his freshman year, largely because his transcript would not have carried his program’s specific name.
“I would have to explain it to everyone,” Drimmer said.
Eventually, Drimmer ended up pursuing a double major in English and theater studies.
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said he does not find the University’s policies on majors in any way unsupportive.
“We have more than 60 majors already, so I would believe that most students would find their interests fulfilled in the existing majors,” Brodhead said.
But Cameron Leader-Picone ’03 said Yale makes student-proposed academic tracks seem silly or non-academic in nature.
He took Drimmer’s Modernity studies idea to Rieger and was rejected, and said he felt the approval process for special divisional majors was antagonistic.
“I felt they were not out to support me, but rather they were working against me to preserve their own system,” Leader-Picone said.
He said he also felt underestimated as a student.
“A special divisional major shouldn’t be a dumbing-down of the educational process. It should be something intellectually very exciting,” Leader-Picone said.
Brodhead, however, maintained that new ideas and already-extant majors are meant to exist together.
“I think [special divisional majors are] an important option,” Brodhead said. “But we don’t make it easy to do a special divisional major because you want it to be for someone who has a really interesting personal program of study in mind, not for someone who just doesn’t like any of the offered majors.”