Something “Special” Special

Choosing a major is rarely a selection complicated by limited options. With over 50 academic departments on campus, many students wind up with an alphabet soup of major and minor combinations, a tongue-twisting double-honors-course title with few intuitive connections between the various parts.

Some students, however, don’t find what they’re looking for in the course catalog. Unsatisfied with a mouthful of concentrations and minors — or sometimes, with program options more generally — these individuals create customized programs of study that bring together various interests under one umbrella title.
Special major designation isn’t just awarded to student-designed programs of study. The college lists several programs as “pre-defined special majors,” including educational studies, film and media studies, biochemistry and German studies.

Dean of Academic Affairs Diane Anderson sees the difference between pre-defined special majors and student constructed special majors as a difference of degree: student-constructed majors get an extra “special,” by her delineation.

“Special special majors are more complicated,” she said. “Sometimes, students come in to talk and realize they can accomplish [their academic goals] with a combination of normal majors, minors and special majors. Sometimes they can’t.”

For Daniel Hirschel-Burns ’14, the difference between a special major drawing from multiple  departments and combination of majors and minors resides primarily in the thesis as a synthesis of convergent areas of study.

“I wanted a culminating exercise of everything I’ve been studying,” Hirschel-Burns said in a Skype interview. “While my thesis will focus on mass atrocities, I only took the one seminar [on the topic]. I’ve had a lot of classes on social classes, a lot on how power works, and the special major gives me the ability to take a lot of different classes with a lot of different departments and finish with a culminating project.”

As a sophomore, Burns received approval for an honors special major based in the history department called “Revolution, Oppression and Social Change.” However, upon returning from a semester abroad in Bolivia, he plans to apply for a second special major — this time, based in peace and conflict studies — called “Political Revolutions.”

Hoping to write a theoretical thesis focused on nonviolent responses to mass atrocities, Burns feels the history department’s thesis requirement of archival research is irrelevant to what he hopes to accomplish; changing his special major will give him the opportunity to work under a different set of requirements.

Applying alone doesn’t guarantee approval for a program of study. Anderson noted that approval for special majors more often than not rests on the depth of the proposed program and the resources available at the college — and within the Tri-Co.

For Carolyn Corbin ’15, Tri-Co courses in her area of interest proved critical in choosing to pursue her long-held educational dream of studying archaeology. Proposing a special major at the end of the month in geoarchaeology, Corbin will utilize Bryn Mawr’s department — along with select courses in Swarthmore’s political science and environmental studies programs — to fulfill requirements.

Corbin attributes her interest in the subject at least partially to her grandmother, who often brought her books from travels abroad featuring objects once buried underground.

“I knew I wanted to be an Egyptologist at age seven,” Corbin said with a laugh.

Although excited to pursue an interest she had written off in high school as unfeasible, traveling back and forth between campuses can be a hassle — both in terms of time lost in transit and scheduling concerns, according to Corbin. However, she seems to feel it’s worth the trip.

“[The special major] lets me choose what I want to study,” she said. “It helps me focus on what I’m interested in. I feel more in control, and I’ll graduate with something I won’t have wasted my time with at all.”

Steven Gu ’15, an honors urban studies special major and political science course major, also plans to incorporate off campus work to pursue his special major. Drawing from a combination of five different departments at Swat, he will focus his inquiry into urban centers through three critical lenses: the interaction between places and people, the political and economic influences on city development and policy, and the aesthetic design of the physical space.

Gu plans to complement his examination of the aesthetics of city design at University College London during his junior year. Barring acceptance, Penn University offers a large selection of courses to draw from that aren’t available on campus.

In Gu’s opinion, designing his own academic track made tackling the sophomore plan a more affirming and personal process.

“Since I was creating [my major] from scratch, I knew what I was getting myself into,” he said. “It made the writing so much easier. I was also able to reaffirm that this is what I want to do, and think through every single step.”

Whereas special special majors like Corbin’s and Gu’s are based on pre-existing programs at other institutions, majors like “Revolution, Oppression and Social Change” may raise a bit more skepticism from friends and family. For Hirschel-Burns, the most resistance to his initial proposed major came from his father.

“My dad did not like the name,” he said. “He really really wanted me to change it. He’s ultimately getting his way, not because I caved, [but because] changing the name is a lot more representative of what I’m studying and what I’m interested in.”

“He thought future employers would think I want to be another Cheng,” he added. “I thought it would be obvious that I’m studying revolution, not how to become a revolutionary.”

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