When I with met newly admitted students in Washington, D.C., last spring, I spoke of those elements of Oberlin that I have found so compelling. I told the students that if they decided to come to Oberlin, they would be joining students who questioned almost all aspects of their education, from individual assignments in courses to the overall structure of the curriculum.
This tradition of questioning has as one of its outgrowths a very healthy program of individual majors. One of the best experiences in my nine years as a faculty member in the College of Arts and Sciences was the three years I was on the Individual Majors Committee with other faculty, staff, and students. I have also been one of the advisors on several individual majors over the years, either in dance/somatic studies or video/multimedia, since those are my two areas of research.
Individual majors are not unique to Oberlin; most colleges have similar programs. It is simply that here it seems telic: if a student begins by questioning why this course and not that course, the end to which she is pointing is the structure of her own education.
An individual major is not for every student. After all, the many departments and programs already have great options and flexibility built into their majors, and applying for an individual major is a lengthy, complicated, and somewhat daunting process.
To qualify for an individual major, students must combine studies from two or more departments. They have to write a "primary rationale" for the major--treading the sometimes-fine line between explaining why the subject they want to study cannot be accomplished within an existing major and also showing that a coherent, in-depth course of study is realizable within Oberlin.
Students must submit a proposed semester-by-semester grid of studies, and this is not easy since students don't always know when particular professors or courses are to be available. The relevance of those courses to the proposed major has to be explained in the application. Finally, students have to consult with a faculty member on a "topic" course, usually a private reading taken in the senior year and focused on what is central to the particular major. This means convincing a faculty member two years in advance that your whole course of study will prepare you to undertake this private reading. Presumably the student has already taken one or two courses with the professor so they both have a sense of how the mentoring relationship might work.
The individual major fits well into the wanderlust that many Obies feel--many proposals include semesters away, studying at outside programs. Too, the individual major serves as an incubation for fledgling programs before they can survive with their own structures--for example, environmental and women's studies in the mid-1980s. More recently, in the last two years the art department instituted a major in visual studies and the theater and dance program instituted one in interdisciplinary performance; both these new majors include cross-departmental study. As a result, the number of related individual majors has dropped.
Listening to students defend their applications before the committee, I was often struck with their intelligence, understanding, and drive. I confess to loving the extreme variety of individual major titles for which we saw applications. Let me end with a few culled from the list: The Musical Language: Linguistics and Music Theory, Politics of Media, Expressions of Transcendence in Religion and Literary Texts, An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Humor: What's So Funny?, Urbanization: Its Causes and Effects, Folklore and Performance, Art of the Moving Image, Philosophic History of Science, Personality Development and the Life Cycle, Modern Sports Management, Medical Ethics, Patterns: The Mathematics of Electronic Music, The Language and Literature of Culture Contact in the Caribbean, and Afro-Pan-American Ethnomusicology.
--by Carter McAdams
Carter McAdams is associate professor of dance.
Return to the ATS-September 1997 Table of Contents