For few special majors, experience is worthy, but not recommended

Bea Koch ’12, currently the only student in the special divisional major, is basing her program off the former Renaissance studies major.
Bea Koch ’12, currently the only student in the special divisional major, is basing her program off the former Renaissance studies major. Photo by Rebecca Koch.

As sophomores finalize their schedules over the next week, many will come closer to deciding which of Yale’s 75 academic majors is for them. And somewhere beyond popular majors such as English and Political Science and small, interdisciplinary programs, a little-known alternative waits in the wings.

Yalies who declare the special divisional major in Yale College design their own course of study with help from Director of Undergraduate Studies Jasmina Besirevic-Regan GRD ’04. Students may apply to the Special Divisional Major as early as their fourth semester at Yale, but no later than one month into their senior year. While the flexibility of such a major might be appealing to some, students who have participated in the program said they would not recommend the path to others.

“It’s hard to explain what are the positives and negatives, because my experience is so unique,” said Bea Koch ’12, who adopted the special divisional major when her Renaissance studies major was cancelled in spring 2009. “But I definitely would not recommend it.”

And once Koch graduates from the program in the spring, there will no be no other special divisional major left to discuss the program with prospective majors: She is currently the only student enrolled in the major. Koch was immediately admitted to the the special divisional major and was not required to follow the usual process for the special major and apply to the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing, because she was using a program of study established by the former Renaissance studies major.

The application process for the special divisional major is extensive, and Yale College makes no effort to hide how challenging it can be for a student to embark upon a major of his or her own design. Information on the special divisional major in the Yale College Programs of Student explicitly states that students in the program “should be aware of its particular demands and risks.” The YCPS entry on the major devotes two paragraphs to those caveats, which include forgoing the guidance and intellectual community that a major situated in an academic department can provide.

Allison Collins ’11 also joined the special divisional major in 2009 after the Renaissance studies major was cancelled. Collins recalled that her friend Matthew McCollum ’11 had wanted to combine theater and music into one major, and met with the directors of undergraduate studies for both departments to discuss his options.

“He seriously considered it, but it was too much of a headache,” she said.

Koch said it can be difficult to find two faculty advisers who would agree to be accountable for the entirety of a student’s self-designed program, which the major requires. While Koch was required to find two such advisers, she was exempt from other application requirements including an essay, a list of future courses and a plan for the senior project because she was following the program of study used by the former Renaissance studies major.

There is no guarantee that a student’s self-designed course of study will pass muster with the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing, as Justine Kolata ’12 found.

Kolata completed all required elements of the application for her human rights program in the special divisional major, and even collected forty faculty signatures for a petition supporting human rights in academia. The process took a full year, and by Kolata’s estimation, the time she spent working on her application was equal to about two extracurricular activities.

But ultimately, the committee denied her application. Kolata said the committee’s members told her she could study human rights through an existing department.

“I put so many hundreds of hours into it, and my advisors had invested so much of their time, too. It was like a slap in the face,” Kolata said.

And even if a student’s planned program passes muster, Koch and Collins said students face even more obstacles once admitted to the major.

Besirevic-Regan could not be reached for comment early this week. In an interview with the News in April, Besirevic-Regan admitted that the major has several shortcomings, including a general lack of funding. She also said students in the major are rarely given priority for admission to seminars.

Though the program is a challenge for many, Besirevic-Regan said students in the major tend to reflect positively on their studies.

“Students who finish with the major find it very fulfilling,” she said.

Indded, while students in the special divisional major said they must be proactive in finding advisors, the added pressure can help special divisional majors form tighter bonds with faculty. Collins and Koch said their relationships with professors were one of their favorite parts of the major.

Koch acknowledges that without the special divisional major and the close relationship she developed with adviser and Berkeley College dean Mia Genoni, the historical embroidery exhibit she curated at Sterling Memorial Library for her senior project, “Nature’s Own Shape,” would not have been possible. Koch said she approached Genoni, an expert on curating special collections at Yale, with the idea for the project last fall. Koch said that though her professor warned her it would be a large undertaking, she agreed to help Koch see it through.

Koch said Genoni was right about the time commitment, but did say that designing her own senior project from scratch has been a worthwhile experience — for her, if not for others. “I’m excited and nervous all at the same time,” said Koch of the exhibit, which opens Friday. “To be able to do that and get credit is amazing.”

Comments

  • River_Tam

    I know plenty of people who thought about doing a SDM. Most were ill-conceived attempts to avoid the un-fun parts of their favorite disciplines – CS majors who wanted to avoid systems classes, Econ majors who wanted to avoid econometrics, History majors who wanted to avoid non-Western history, English majors who wanted to avoid poetry. Etc.

    I double-majored in completely unrelated fields, and during one unhappy pset session sophomore year, I wildly considered trying to force them into one SDM. I talked to my Dean, who told me that I could either do a double major or not, and that there was no point in half-assing two majors.

    Words to live by.