Interdisciplinary majors require active planning

Allison Collins ’11 came to Yale knowing what she wanted to major in: Renaissance studies, a major that drew courses from 18 different departments.

“I love the time period,” she said, “and I really like that it’s interdisciplinary so that I get to study something from all different angles.”

But a Faculty of Arts and Sciences vote last Thursday eliminated Renaissance studies from Yale’s roster of standalone majors. Students will still be able to enroll in all of its courses, which had been cross-listed in the other departments, and have the option of creating a special divisional major in the field.

For Collins, Thursday’s vote did not change her intent to pursue Renaissance studies.

“It changes things, but it’s a change I can handle,” she said. “I’ll still have the faculty.”

But it is more than a change in name. Students wishing to pursue a special divisional major, like Collins, must take more initiative than those enrolled in regular majors: they design the special divisional major’s curriculum, find their own advisers and apply for administrative approval. Still, to accommodate students who may wish to pursue more personalized majors without the burden of creating their own, Yale’s faculty are establishing an increasing number of small, new majors that cater to students’ interdisciplinary academic interests.

NO LONGER A MAJOR

The extra initiative required to create a special divisional major deterred Emma Czaja ’12, who had been considering Renaissance studies before it was altered.

Czaja said the work of piecing together a curriculum that was broad enough to study all of the aspects of the Renaissance yet thorough enough to provide depth was not appealing.

“You just have to go through a lot of trouble,” she said, adding that special divisional majors’ diplomas and transcripts only carry the notation “special divisional major,” with naming the specific program of study. Czaja is now contemplating a major in archaeology instead.

Students in a special divisional major receive little help designing their programs, and they must find two advisers on their own. They must set up criteria for choosing courses, design a senior project and undergo a rigorous application process to pursue the major.

Although students in special divisional majors have the freedom to design their own studies, they lack many of the advantages of regular departmental affiliation, such as priority for acceptance to restricted-enrollment courses — for instance, junior seminars that give priority to students in that department.

Students should take advantage of existing majors instead of accepting responsibility for creating their own, said Cynthia Horan, the coordinator of the undergraduate program in urban studies, an interdisciplinary program that does not fall under any specific department.

“It’s completely individual,” she said. “There’s zero coordination.”

Horan has spoken to a small number of students about urban studies, but she usually recommends they choose a major with a specific concentration in urban studies, such as architecture, ethics, politics and economics or American studies.

“People put a lot of time and energy into designing undergraduate programs at Yale,” she said. “It just makes sense … for students to choose those.”

NEW INTERDISCIPLINARY MAJORS

It has been more than a decade since a major was eliminated, but other Yale majors in the past have undergone similar shifts in classification, such as medieval studies and British studies, which were both transformed into special divisional majors.

Yale has a growing number of majors that combine multiple fields of study, including computing and the arts, a major that opened to enrollment just this year. Faculty in the computer science department proposed the major to the Committee on Majors after noticing that students were interested in applying their computer science knowledge to arts disciplines — or even using computer science concepts to modernize traditional fields, as Justine Leichtling ’10, one of the new computing and the arts majors, did.

Leichtling had planned to be a music major, but said she wanted to avoid music history classes because she intended to study electronic music.

“What appealed to me about that was that there weren’t any rules, classical, theoretical rules,” she said. “I wanted to learn more about the programs that you can use to create electronic music.”

Although she is still required to take the prerequisites of computer science as well as of music, Leichtling prefers the new major to taking a double major or creating her own, she said.

“That would’ve been a lot of work,” she said, referring to the options of a double major and special divisional major.

Faculty have generated “several” proposals to establish new majors in recent years, said Mark Mooseker, chair of the Committee on Majors and a professor of molecular, cellular and development biology.

Not only computing and the arts, but modern Middle East studies, became majors this academic year, following the addition of South Asian studies last year. Before that, ten years ago, cognitive science was the last new major approved by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Other proposals for new majors develop from popular concentrations within existing majors, Mooseker said, citing a proposal from the applied mathematics department to establish a statistics major that was passed in February.

“If a group of faculty feel they have a critical mass of interest and [a program] would benefit from their own administrative structures,” Mooseker said, “they can make a proposal.”

Mooseker suggested the availability of small interdisciplinary majors at Yale may factor into deliberations on the proposed academic minors program, currently under consideration by University administrators.

“What would it do to small interdisciplinary majors? Certainly … that’s one of my concerns,” Mooseker said, adding, “What a great curriculum Yale has is because of all of these majors, so even if enrollment is small … they really provide a lot.”

Comments

  • correction

    “You just have to go through a lot of trouble,” she said, adding that special divisional majors’ diplomas and transcripts only carry the notation “special divisional major,” with naming the specific program of study.

    Isn't this supposed to be WITHOUT naming the specific program of study?

  • Anonymous

    Maybe they could keep a list around for (relatively) popular special divisional majors that could have their real names printed on the diploma, like Renaissance or Medieval studies, which I imagine would be more popular than those which someone just completely invented.