Features, University News

Overachievers? Maybe. Busy? You bet they are.

By
Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009

For about one in five students at Brown, one concentration isn’t enough. And for a very small minority on campus, even two concentrations don’t cut it.

About 12 triple concentrators graduated last spring, according to Deputy Dean of the College Stephen Lassonde. He said that number remains relatively stable from year to year.

The absence of requirements in Brown’s curriculum permits students to triple concentrate in diverse fields — but some wonder if doing so is antithetical to the spirit of the open curriculum.

Jeremy Goodman ’10 is one triple concentrator whose interests span several divergent disciplines.

Initially, Goodman declared a double concentration in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy. It wasn’t until the winter of his junior year that he declared his third concentration, physics.

Goodman said he chose to major in physics after discovering that he had already fulfilled all but two required courses for the concentration through his college coursework and advanced math and science classes in high school.

To fulfill all his academic requirements and graduate in four years, Goodman packed his schedule with five classes each semester. Despite the heavy course load, he is studying abroad in London this semester.

Unlike Goodman, who used his three concentrations to pursue interests across the humanities and sciences, Teodor Moldovan ’09 took on three concentrations to provide himself with a highly-focused education.

“I come from Romania, where the high school is really supposed to be about breadth,” said Moldovan, who concentrated in computer science, mathematics and physics. “I saw college as an occasion to specialize, so that’s what I did.”

His concentrations required him to take about 28 courses — leaving Moldovan, who took a standard load of four courses a semester, with little time in his schedule for classes outside his concentrations. Moldovan took two French language classes, but other than that, his time at Brown was packed mainly with math and science classes.

Moldovan said he wasn’t planning on declaring three concentrations when he arrived at Brown — he only decided to pursue computer science in addition to physics after taking an introductory course in computer vision, the study of machines that recognize images and motion.

Moldovan said his concentration in math was a “byproduct” of the courses he had already taken. By the end of his junior year, he had already taken so many math courses as part of his computer science and physics concentrations that he needed to take only a few more to declare a third concentration.

Now that Moldovan has graduated, he is a first-year Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, where he works in a field of computer science that investigates how machines learn and use information to make decisions. Though Moldovan said he would have been more prepared for his current graduate work if he had focused solely on computer science in his undergraduate studies, he thinks his triple concentration gave him an advantage over other candidates when he applied to Ph.D. programs.

“The kind of computer science I did at Brown was mostly computer vision. Machine learning is a separate topic,” Moldovan said. “I guess they accepted me even though I had no solid background in machine learning because they saw a solid background in mathematics.”

In some cases, triple concentrating could be an effective way for students to achieve both breadth and depth in their studies, two fundamental goals of a Brown education, Lassonde said.

Lassonde said he disapproves of students declaring multiple concentrations based solely on the number of concentration requirements they have already completed.

“Some people who double-concentrate or triple-concentrate look at the courses they’ve taken and say, ‘Hey, I’ve almost got a second concentration here,’ or, I should say, ‘three concentrations,'” he said. “In that way, it’s almost like bingo. Just one more letter, and I can win.”

Lassonde said he approves of triple concentrators as long as their academic ambition represent the end result of a “thoughtful process.”

The University does not require students to attain any special permission to triple concentrate, Lassonde said. Students declare second and third concentrations in the same way they would declare a single concentration — by filing petitions with both the Office of the Dean and the Office of the Registrar.

Advising for triple concentrators is also similar to advising for students with one or two concentrations. According to Lassonde, triple concentrators receive advisers in three departments. The advisers are not required to communicate with one another. For Goodman and Moldovan, having three different advisers wasn’t a problem, and both said they were able to receive whatever help they needed.

Some students’ qualms about triple concentrating may not be about advising or administrative issues, though. More than anything, students fear that having three concentrations would prevent them from fully taking advantage of the open curriculum.
Last year, Phil Arevalo ’11 planned to triple concentrate in biology, mathematics and classics. Now, he has decided on applied math-biology as his only concentration, a choice that he said reflects his goal of becoming a professor of biology.

Arevalo said he also chose to declare only one concentration to take some courses in a wider range of subjects. “The point of the open curriculum is that you can do that.”
He admits, though, that he still considers declaring classics — fulfilling a second concentration, at least.