University News

Independent concentrators chart interdisciplinary paths

Students say ICs lack publicity, leading to reputation of exaggerated obstacles, disinterest

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2016

1969 — the year the New Curriculum received approval — marked the first time a Brown student created an independent concentration, said Peggy Chang, director of the Curricular Resource Center and assistant dean for engaged learning.

“If you think of the time back in ’68, ’69 — that was the Civil Rights Movement, that was a time when a lot of places like Brown were going co-ed,” Chang said. “There was a lot of conversation back then about philosophical questions — about what is learning, what are we learning, who is teaching it.”

This atmosphere of activism and exploration begot the independent concentration, which gives students the opportunity to design and earn a degree in their own unique course of study. Some ICs are anomalies and have appeared on a Brown diploma only once since the independent concentration became an option, while others prove so popular that they have become standard concentrations.

“The lore goes that even concentrations like neuroscience, science and technology studies, literary arts, Middle East studies and now the latest example is contemplative studies — they became standard concentrations in part because there was demonstrated student interest,” Chang said.

During the 2015-16 academic year, 45 IC proposals were submitted and “at least twice that many students came in to talk about doing an IC,” Chang said. After completing the application process, 13 students received approval for their independent concentrations.

Students in the process of completing their ICs said the program has a reputation for being difficult because of widespread ignorance and skepticism about the process of proposing and completing them. But students who demonstrate the necessary passion for fields outside the realm of standard concentrations tend to receive approval, Chang said.

Independent, and often interdisciplinary

“I was originally an econ major, and I wasn’t really happy,” said Yuval Yossefy ’17. “They would give us basically these big mathematical theories, but they wouldn’t really explain much about them … why we believe in them or how we got to them.”

In order to find “historical or cultural justification” for economic theories, Yossefy had to combine an education in economics with humanities courses, he said. His IC, the history of economic theory, enabled him to take an interdisciplinary approach to the subject. In fact, many independent concentrators are motivated by a passion that spans departments and disciplines.

Radhika Singhal ’17 is concentrating in health economics, or the “social, cultural context that people live in and how that factors into how they perceive health and healthcare,” she said. Her IC focuses on developing countries and the importance of interacting with their citizens and trying to “understand what they want and how they perceive certain things before actually trying to fix” healthcare issues, she added.

Though Singhal considered double concentrating in public health and economics, she, like Yossefy, wanted more “multidisciplinary exposure.” Her IC combines classes in the economics, public health, anthropology and American studies departments.

Similarly, Anna Schwartz ’17 chose to concentrate in music cognition, an IC that includes courses from the music and CLPS departments. “The purpose of it is really to look at how these two seemingly different disciplines are in fact really related and connected to each other,” she said.

Danielle Perelman ’17 considered at least six different standard concentrations offered at the University but “didn’t really want to settle” on pursuing only one of her interests, she said. So, she created her own IC, multimedia storytelling. “It’s basically looking at how different mediums affect the stories that are being told. So looking at film, photography, journalism, performance, virtual reality,” Perelman said.

There are a few common independent concentrations that multiple students have pursued, sometimes simultaneously. For example, three students have applied to concentrate in educational neuroscience, though each has interpreted the concentration “on their own terms, selecting a different advisor and different courses,” Chang said.

Independent concentrations are “all about students not just having a lot of disciplines represented in their concentration, but how are the disciplines talking to one another, what’s the relationship,” Chang said. “The program is ideal for students who have a very clear research question or focus in mind and very much see the need to look at it from more than one disciplinary perspective.”

Navigating the proposal process

A proposal for an independent concentration  starts with an application that requires potential independent concentrators to justify their proposed track, usually after a meeting with Chang or student independent concentration advisors. Students must make an annotated list of the courses that will comprise their concentration, compile a bibliography of texts relevant to the IC, write a proposal for a final capstone project or thesis and attach a letter from a faculty sponsor.

“A lot of it is not to discourage people, but to make sure that you’re super committed,” Perelman said. “It weeds out people who are very, very committed versus people who just want to get out of doing theory classes for MCM or something.”

In structuring their independent concentrations, students can look to programs at other universities that resemble their proposed IC or to the applications of past independent concentrators for guidance, Perelman added.

Finished applications are submitted to a subcommittee of the College Curriculum Council, which is “a faculty administrative body,” Chang said. Students can receive four types of responses. Their concentrations can be fully approved, tentatively approved — greenlighted except for minor changes —  sent back with a request for “substantive” changes or outright denied, which typically happens if students run out of time to complete a proposed degree.

Students have six opportunities to submit each academic year — proposals are due on the first of the month and decisions are released by the end of the month. In order to pursue an independent concentration, students must receive approval by the end of their sixth semester. The application process is “iterative,” Chang said, adding that proposals are rarely approved on the first submission.

Chang noted that there are several mistakes that commonly lead to the CCC requesting changes to a proposal. “Some students make the mistake of just sort of cutting and pasting what’s out there,” Chang said. “But we can see that there’s not a real understanding or personal interpretation.”

Other common errors in independent concentration proposals include using “very specific terminology to the field” that committee members have difficulty understanding. Another concern is a lack of cohesion among different disciplines and departments, she added.

Yossefy said that the rigorous application process helped him to refine his IC and discover his true objective. “Where I started was very different than what my concentration ended up being,” he said.

Reputation as a roadblock

Among the general student body, independent concentrations are unfairly stigmatized as unduly difficult, Chang said. “I don’t want that to be the reputation, but I think it still is,” she added.

This reputation made the application process daunting, Singhal said. “I remember when I was in the process of applying, it was this almost scary thing in people’s minds where they were like, ‘Oh my God, no one gets it through. That’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do,’” she said.

“I did get a lot of people telling me, ‘Don’t do it, it’s not worth it,’ and sometimes I doubted myself,” Schwartz said.

Though the widespread misconception of ICs as too hard is not the University’s fault, Singhal said, steps could be taken to show students that independent concentrations are doable. “People probably don’t know about it, or don’t know enough about it, to understand that it’s something that you can do,” she said.

A general ignorance of independent concentrations might keep students from applying, Perelman said. “I found out about it through someone else,” she said. Increasing publicity of the option of doing an IC would improve the program and make it more accessible, she added.

“We’ve worked very hard in the past couple of years to be much more concrete about what an IC is and how to get one passed,” Chang said. “We’re not really trying to weed anybody out; we want as many to pass as possible,” she added.

A lack of awareness and understanding of the independent concentration program among faculty members can also make pursuing an IC more challenging, Perelman said. “You get a lot of discouragement along the way,” she added. “I met with a few people to be my advisor and they were like, ‘I don’t really support the idea of independent concentrations; why can’t you just do MCM?’”

Yossefy said that familiarizing faculty members with the IC process and the role of an IC advisor should be a priority because they play a big role in the application process. “A big hurdle for me in the early stages was … getting (faculty members) comfortable enough to sign on and support me,” he said.

Though some faculty members have not encouraged students to independently concentrate, some display enthusiasm and have insight about the process. “My advisor was very helpful because he has been doing this for so long,” Singhal said. “He specifically deals with health economics in developing countries.”

Either way, students who are in the process of completing their independent concentrations noted the unique opportunity provided to them by the University.

An independent concentration has given her a chance to take advantage of the “freedom and opportunity” inherent in the University’s open curriculum, Singhal said.

“I didn’t even know about independent concentrations when I came to Brown,” Schwartz said. “This is my unique way of being a representation of Brown’s overall philosophy of being a leader of your own education.”