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When the Course Catalog Isn’t Enough

7 mins read

With Swarthmore’s reputation for non-conformity, the presence of special, custom-built majors don’t seem so out of place. Students that feel that their interests don’t fit specifically into any one department can apply for a special major in which they build their own curriculum with the help of advisors, unlike other special majors like neuroscience where the curriculum is pre-made. Professors Lee Smithey and Donna Jo Napoli, who have both advised students pursuing special majors, said that special majors aren’t about just combining things one likes.

“I don’t think that you should to a special major just to do two things you like doing. I think you should do it if they feed into each other and produce something coherent,” said Professor Napoli.

The ideal special major deals with an intersection between two fields, as unlikely as they may seem. Napoli spoke of a student in the past that pursued a custom major in theatre and linguistics and another student in chemistry and art. Though those students seem to be studying unrelated courses, they brought them together for a singular purpose in a way that made sense. The theatre and linguistics major had a focus on deaf theatre, and the chemistry and art major had a focus in restoration. Professor Smithey echoed Napoli’s opinion, stating that if a student is just interested in two subjects, then there’s always double majoring.

Daniel Hirschel-Burns ’14 is a special major in Peace and Conflict Studies: Political conflict. His interest differs from the normal peace and conflict studies program in that his focus is on mass atrocities and genocide, which incorporates ideas from various subjects, such as sociology, psychology, and political science. Hirschel-Burns started off as a freshman that had an interest in history and eventually pursued a special major in history on revolution, oppression, and social change. He was specifically interested in understanding the social contexts by which normal people participate in political conflicts and mass killings, and he changed his major because he felt that history was too strict and didn’t fully cover his interests. His thesis is on nonviolent approach to mass atrocities and genocide, which would have been hard to pursue as a history major as history theses require archival proof. His thesis requires more modern forms of information, especially blogs and other web-content, and his thesis advising now requires several advisors from different departments.

Though David Ding ’16 is just a sophomore, he is already building his own major in chemical physics. He plans on pursuing a career related to energy, so a special major in chemical physics seemed like the right fit as he feels that a degree in chemical physics will be seen differently from a normal degree in physics or chemistry. The hardest part for Ding’s major is doubling science course requirements, which can be extremely demanding and time consuming.

“Chemistry is pretty abstract, and there are no classes like the ones I’m taking before college. If that wasn’t enough, throw in upper-level math based physics as well. This just means my classes are demanding, and I have to love what I’m doing,” said Ding.

To Ding and Hirschel-Burns one of the biggest benefits in designing his own major is the freedom it provides in choosing what to study . It has allowed him to build a curriculum that covers the classes and experiences he needs for his thesis work. Though, Hirschel-Burns stated that one of his biggest challenges has been receiving less support since no one professor specializes in what he’s studying exactly. For his thesis advising, he has to gather a few professors from several departments to get the help he needs.

“It requires some degree of self-motivation to get that to happen,” said Hirschel-Burns. Smithey stated that the students who have pursued custom majors in the past seem to be more passionate about what they want to study than other students. Part of this is that it takes so much more work to build a curriculum and work between departments that requires a lot of passion and dedication from the students.

Professor Napoli stated that, in her experience, students who chose to special major sometimes got even more attention and support than students who did not, as they can have multiple thesis advisors. Though, the level of support offered ultimately depends on the combination of the student’s interests, as sometimes the only professor that can serve as an advisor teaches at UPenn, or in other Tri-Co schools.

Not just anyone can pursue a special major. Depending on the department, it requires the approval of a steering committee to make sure that the special major is trying to achieve something that couldn’t be achieved by a double major or minor. Professor Smithey, head of the Peace and Conflict Studies department, said that he would advise students that may be interested in pursuing a special major to start getting to know the departments, and form some idea about the curriculum by the end of freshmen year.

The Phoenix