Despite the more than 70 existing majors on offer, a handful of Yalies decide every year to forge new paths of study.
Special divisional majors said they appreciate the freedom they have outside the requirements of a structured major, but sticking to a new course of study is sometimes difficult without the built-in support of a department on campus. Many of the students pursuing self-designed majors, as well as students who hope to do so in the future, said they hope that Yale will eventually create formal majors to cover the fields they are studying.
In order to develop a special divisional major, students must have the support of two faculty advisers and submit an application to the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing, chaired by Dean Mark Schenker. Their proposals must include a description of the objectives and organization of the major, a list of relevant Yale courses and a defense of why the major is a valid course of study at Yale.
Literature professor Pericles Lewis, chair of the Committee on Majors, said although Yale offers an extensive list of majors that are flexible enough to accommodate the majority of students’ interests, it is not surprising that some students choose to pursue tailor-made programs of study.
“Yale students are creative and they have lots of unique plans, and they sometimes feel like a special major is needed to accomplish those plans,” he said. “But most of the time … you can find a path through a traditional major,”
Orly Friedman ’07, a special divisional major in urban studies with a focus on India, said the most difficult part of the process was defending the need to design a new major, especially because several existing programs offer tracks in urban studies. But since the other requirements of these majors did not appeal to her, she decided to create a program that focused on exactly what she wanted to study.
Rohan Jain ’07 applied to create a special divisional major in South Asian studies because he wanted to undertake a comprehensive study of the region, something he thought was not possible within the framework of any particular department. Jain — whose coursework has included classes in religious studies, history, political science, English and Hindi — said premed requirements have been time-consuming, so if he had majored in history, his ability to take South Asian studies courses in other departments would have been limited by time constraints.
“I’ve talked to other students who have applied [for a South Asian studies major], and they were denied,” Jain said. “I was told that part of the reason that my application was accepted is that for me, there was no other way to accommodate my interest because I’m premed.”
A proposal for a formal South Asian studies major is currently under review by the Committee on Majors. But Jain said he would not have wanted South Asian studies to be available only as a second major, a structure that might be proposed by the committee.
Andrew Samuel ’09 said although he has not yet applied, he hopes to pursue a special divisional major in South Asian studies as well. But he said he thinks the process of getting a proposal approved is not particularly transparent. He said while he understands that a proposal must demonstrate why a particular course of study is impossible to complete within an existing major, he thinks it is extremely unclear why the committee accepts some proposals while rejecting others.
“There’s no set formula to go about doing it,” Samuel said. “You don’t really now how the council is going to react.”
Friedman said the University is very supportive of the field of urban studies, so finding advisers and courses was not difficult for her, although it has been a challenge to remain focused without any direct supervision.
Jain said though he appreciated the hands-off attitude of the administration, he agrees that it was often a struggle to find resources for his academic pursuits, particularly when it came to finding funding for summer projects and research.
“When it comes to things like research money and fellowship grants, other majors have almost automatic sources, whereas a special divisional major has no existing sources that they can draw upon,” Jain said.
The Committee on Majors is currently reviewing proposals for South Asian studies and modern Middle East studies majors. Within the next several weeks, the committee will decide whether or not to forward the proposals on to Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, who can then bring the proposals up for a faculty vote.