Session Proposal: Self-Directed or Self-Constructed Majors

Dean of Academic Planning and Advising Celia Easton proposes a session on self-directed or self-constructed majors. A choice at many other colleges and universities (including SUNY schools, e.g., Binghamton), self-directed majors allow students to construct their own course of (interdisciplinary) study. Most colleges require students to research, propose, and defend their individually defined majors. Students choose an advisor from within a discipline, but work with many faculty across the college. Self-directed majors are usually larger than traditional majors because students need more foundational courses to be prepared for upper-level work in more than one discipline. One famous self-directed major was (NY Times Crossword Editor) Will Shortz’s major in “Puzzles” at Oberlin. To study “Puzzles,” Will needed to take advanced courses in mathematics, economics, history, and languages and literature. Other self-directed majors are more thematic, such as Human Travel to Mars (engaging Physics, Math, Literature, and Philosophy); Environmentalism and Racism (engaging Sociology, Environmental Studies, Communication, and Geography).

Why does Geneseo need a self-directed major? This is an inviting opportunity for any motivated student, but there are two groups at either end of the “success” spectrum who would be especially well served by a self-directed major. One is the student like a new student I met last week with a 3.7 GPA in her first semester who is going to “study away” from Geneseo next year because she brought in so many college credits earned during HS (AP + community college), she must choose a major now — but she feels it’s too soon to narrow down her choices. She wants to “study everything” and is very interested in the intersectionality of the courses she is taking. At the other end of the spectrum is the student who makes progress toward a major in the School of Education or School of Business but fails to meet the GPA requirements. That student, in overall good standing, could still earn a degree at Geneseo, but has no traditional “cluster” of courses in a major to move into.

The literature on self-directed majors and examples from other colleges suggest that self-directed majors are well respected and not “an easy way out.” In some cases they can, indeed, be academic parachutes for students who must bail on an unsuccessful major. But in others they can present an opportunity for the kind of intellectual exploration that best exemplifies the values of the liberal arts.

Use this link (you must be signed into your Geneseo account) to access a Google Drive folder of examples from other colleges and other notes.

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