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Majorly independent at Grinnell


By Yishi Liang

“What are you interested in studying?” “What are you planning on majoring in?” “What field do you want to go into?” From the moment new students arrive on campus, they are bombarded with questions about their academic goals. Many know exactly what it is they want to study, while some only know what division, and others have no idea whatsoever. With so much to consider for each major, such as personal interest, course load and postgraduate plans, there is undoubtedly some anxiety surrounding the whole process—despite having almost two years to declare a major.

However, Grinnell is a school defined by individuality and self-governance. If students think that none of the offered majors meet their specific academic goals, they can choose to declare an independent major. However, that is not to say that students can invent any sort of major they would like.

Instead, it means that students have the option to create a major that incorporates many different fields and departments so as to truly embody their intellectual interest. An independent major allows a student to build an individualized course curriculum with guidance from College faculty. It is not something that can be done on a whim.

Independent majors require all the same general guidelines as the traditional majors along with a some additional requirements, which include a written proposal, a student-designed curriculum, two academic advisors, and 40 credits pertaining to that major.

Cheryl Chase, Registrar, cites these requirements as some of the key reasons discouraging potential independent majors. In fact, in the past twelve years, there have only been about 7 independent majors per graduating class, with only one in the class of 2013.

Despite the seemingly loaded process of declaring an independent major, there are students who willingly take on this task for the sake of fulfilling their interests and goals. Two of these students are Brian Buckley ’14 and Joey Brown ’15.

Buckley, an American Studies major with a focus on literature and film, is passionate about receiving an interdisciplinary education. He was committed enough to transfer from Wesleyan University after his first year, despite their well-established American Studies department.

“The mainstream notion of declaring a major is that you declare something you want to do after college,” Buckley said. “But I plan to do a lot of different things after college, so [an independent major] made sense for me for what I want to do.”

For Brown, who is still undeclared but whose main interest is education, the fact that Grinnell does not offer education as either a major or concentration did not discourage him from the field. He is currently considering a major in Educational Studies. One of the driving forces for Brown’s major is his postgraduate plan.

“I intend to teach,” Brown said. “I want to look at the system of education through an anthropological and sociological lens.”

Postgraduate plans are perhaps another deterring factor for independent majors. Some students believe that these majors may not be easily understood by graduate schools and potential employers as traditional majors. Brown acknowledges that he still has concerns of the recognition his major will receive.

“Having an independent major as opposed to an accredited major is something I’ll have to explain,” Brown noted. “But I think with my endorsements [from the College] and my interest, I’d be able to articulate what my independent major is about and the merits of it.”

As for graduate school, it will depend on the individual school and program of study. Chase was confident that independent majors would receive the same chance of receiving a graduate-level education as any other major.

“As my personal opinion, I think grad schools are sometimes looking for depth, but sometimes breadth,” Chase said. “And although your transcript is important, I suspect the application, the essay and the actual coursework is a lot more important.”

However, there are also invaluable personal attributions that come from creating an independent major.

“There’s more intentionality in it. You’re deciding what classes you’re going to take so you care a lot more,” Buckley said. “My hope is that my independent major, along with other people’s, will show the College that there is a push for more interdisciplinary study, with more departments working together to design these majors.”

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