When a regular major doesn’t fit, make one

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April 15, 2008

2:32 AM

Many students come to the College to study business, government, art, mathematics or kinesiology, but for some, none of the usual majors are right.

Phillip Walker ’10 knew coming into his sophomore year that he wanted to major in either philosophy or psychology, but he couldn’t decide which. It was not until he took a psychology course in cognitive science this semester that an area of study began to emerge as a possibility.

“I realized that there was a whole field of study at the intersection of these two fields, along with computer science and neuroscience,” Walker said. “Since I’ve always wanted to learn more about computers and programming, I felt the only right thing to do in this situation was to combine classes from these fields to create a major in cognitive science.”

Walker began the process of designing a major, which he said was “surprisingly easy.”

“I had a meeting with my cognitive science professor to help formulate a curriculum for the major,” he said.

Dean of Honors and Interdisciplinary Studies Joel Schwartz guides students like Walker who are interested in interdisciplinary majors. There are currently 26 students at the College who are pursuing self-defined majors.

“For every three students that come looking to create their own major, there is one that ends up doing it,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz cited a medieval studies student as an example. The student blended religion, history, art history and literature, designing the major “the way the medieval world really thinks of it.”

Students have to find a focused interdisciplinary study for it to be approved. Schwartz lists a number of problems students run into.

“Often they don’t have a focus, and are too broad — their major would look like the elective part of a student’s 120 credits. Then, sometimes they are too narrow to be an undergraduate liberal arts major,” Schwartz said. “In all these cases, the students either drop it, or turn around and re-frame it.”

When Patricia Daly ’07 decided she wanted to design her own major in medicine and health, Dean Schwartz gave her past plans students had created in that field.

“[In] the end some of the classes I chose were similar to the other students’ plans,” Daly said. “It was also useful to look at their plans to get new ideas on what classes can be related, like health classes in anthropology or sociology.”

Daly created a major in health and cultural studies combining a number of science courses with Hispanic Studies courses.

Since graduating, Daly has entered dental school and hopes to complete a combined masters in health program.

“In interviews, when people ask you about your major, they are very interested in hearing why you created your own,” Daly said. “It makes you seem that you have real aspiration. And it makes your different.”

Schwartz notes that Daly’s major follows a trend of public health majors at the College.

“Each student spins it differently, but public health is a theme,” he said. “If this theme is continuous, we might get faculty together that are logical for that major, and create a department at William and Mary.”

International relations and global studies were two such majors that began as interdisciplinary studies.

For now, students like Walker are following their own plan.

“Creating my own major makes me feel unique, like I am making my own path, by doing something rarely done,” Walker said.

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