Writing in the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago, Sue Shellenbarger explored the growing popularity of customized majors at many colleges and universities:

More than 900 four-year colleges and universities allow students to develop their own programs of study with an adviser’s help, up 5.1% from five years ago, based on data from the College Board, a New York-based nonprofit organization of colleges and universities. University officials say at least 70 go a step further, providing programs with faculty advisers, and sometimes specialized courses, to help students develop educational plans tailored to their interests, while still meeting school standards.

[T]he number of organized programs is growing, says Margaret Lamb, director of the University of Connecticut’s individualized major program, which enrolls 150 of the university’s 21,500 undergraduates. Indiana University, with an enrollment of about 30,000 undergraduates at its Bloomington campus, has seen its individualized-majors program grow about 15% in the past decade. Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., recently broadened student access to cross-disciplinary majors, and the University of Alabama and others are adding faculty or other resources. Philadelphia’s Drexel University is launching one next fall.

Shellenbarger then rounds up some examples, seemingly designed to show how an individualized major can help undergraduates find the job of their dreams:

Anna Rogers, of Bloomington, Ind., who is working on her first bachelor’s degree at age 47 . . . didn’t find exactly the major she wanted at her in-state school, Indiana University[. So] she worked with advisers in its underwater science and museum programs to create one—underwater archaeology. She is studying shipwrecks at the university’s research sites in the Caribbean and hopes after graduating in 2011 for a career preserving undersea artifacts and tourist sites…

Mike Miklavic, a 2009 grad who majored in entrepreneurship and Web development, says the UMass program enabled him to take both business and computer-science classes while doing internships and launching his own business on the side. He recently signed on as a vice president at CampusLive, a Boston startup that builds social networks on individual college campuses… Justin Carven, a Hampshire College mechanical-design major who studied biofuels, went on after graduating in 2000 to start a Holyoke, Mass., company promoting vehicles powered on vegetable oil…

These students were apparently successful in finding — or better yet, creating — jobs after designing majors with practical-seeming applications. But then there’s the accompanying sidebar, listing other do-it-yourself majors, including: 

– animal psychology
– music promotion
– historical clothing
– bioethics in cross-cultural perspective
– magic

Undoubtedly many of the folks majoring in these subjects did find jobs — if nothing else, it makes a great talking point in an interview. And the process of evaluating one’s interests, designing and developing a major, and shepherding it through a bureaucracy to get approval is undoubtedly a skill builder. On the other hand, one wonders about the academic rigor involved in many of these majors — not to mention the applicability to other professional opportunities should the music promotion major decide a few years down the road that he or she doesn’t want to be living off struggling artists for decades to come. That’s a problem that could afflict those pursuing trendy, of-the-moment majors like “biofuels” and “web development” as well.

At Williams, we know the self-designed major as a “contract major,” one of the legacies of Robert Gaudino. Indeed, in a previous EphBlog discussion, the community helped advise a Williams student on whether to pursue a contract major in bioethics (although apparently without the “cross-cultural perspective.”). One general theme was that Williams makes it a challenge to pursue a contract major, with a bureaucratic and faculty-centric process that culminates in review by the CEP. And the catalog description of the contract major seems to discourage all but the most intent from pressing forward:

students should consider carefully the advantage of working within existing majors or programs, taking note of the considerable intellectual pleasures involved in sharing similar educational experiences with other students working within the same field. Students might also consider whether their interests could be met by completing a regular major and coordinate program, or two majors, or simply by working outside a major field in courses of special interest.

In recent years, two of the most popular contract majors at Williams have seen significant changes. The departure of the College’s only linguistics professor makes it unlikely that linguistics will continue to generate a regular cadre of majors. And the creation of majors in environmental policy and environmental science to complement the longtime environmental studies concentration satisfies another curricular demand that has often led to contract majors. (Contract majors have spawned permanent majors before — both the women’s studies major and the anthropology major began with contract majors).

Williams does seem to have largely discouraged the sillier contract majors from coming into existence, even at the price of stifling or limiting some student creativity. One of the requirements placed upon contract majors is that they limit themselves to the contract major rather than double up with an existing major. Presumably this is intended to ensure that, having chosen a narrow field for their major, contract majors participate in the broader liberal arts concept.

Am I right in thinking that most contract majors have been in subjects of repeated interest that are also major subject areas at larger universities, such as film studies, urban studies, and architecture, or reflect the expansion of one of the concentrations? If Williams has managed to satisfy student demand while avoiding the trendy and odd subjects designed by students at other institutions, that seems like a real success story.

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