University News

Students examine independent study options

Many independent study programs remain popular academic options for students

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2013

Run out of the Curricular Resource Center, independent study programs aim to give students the chance to expand the scope of their learning.

When the New Curriculum was created, its progenitors “envisioned independent study as a cornerstone of the Brown academic experience,” according to the Curricular Resource Center’s website.

More than 40 years later, though the College Curriculum Council approved only eight Independent Study Projects and 16 Group Independent Study Projects this semester, 1,730 students are currently participating in Departmental Independent Study Projects, and the number of independent concentrators has increased in recent years according to data given to The Herald by the CRC.

The wide range of courses Brown offers provides students with more options that may lessen motivation to design independent study projects, Associate Dean of the College Kathleen McSharry wrote in an email to The Herald.

When the New Curriculum took off in the 1970s, the University had fewer class offerings, said Peggy Chang ’91, director of the CRC. Many standard courses or concentrations originated as GISPs, including the American sign language and neuroscience concentrations.

“Back then there were around 100 GISPs a year, but that was a time when there were not 2,000 classes, 700 professors or 78 concentrations,” Chang said.

Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards and fellowship programs sponsored by the Watson Institute for International Studies, the Swearer Center for Public Service and the Office of International Affairs also attract students who may have otherwise pursued independent study projects by satisfying their desires to pursue projects outside the traditional classroom experience, McSharry wrote.

Even with the University’s increase in course offerings over the years, some students still opt to create their own ISPs or GISPs, with projects ranging from “Chemical Systems of Food” to “Hip Hop Education.”

“The experience of a semester entirely self-driven with … much less accountability to a professor is totally different,” said Laura Ucik ’13, a CRC independent studies coordinator.


Crafting a course

Trends in the last 10 years show GISPs are often more abundant in the spring semester. The number of GISPs this semester more than doubled compared to the fall, reaching 16 projects compared to last semester’s seven, according to the CRC data.

“The fall is when you have the idea brewing but you haven’t acted on it and the spring is when you can act on it,” Chang said.

Independent study projects have also increased since last semester, rising from five to eight, according to the data.

Independent study applications must be filled out by students interested in doing any non-departmental independent study, group independent study or academic internship. The faculty adviser must also submit a sponsorship statement.

“The proposal process through the CCC is somewhat rigorous in that you literally come up with a 14-week syllabus the semester prior, and that’s not easy to do,” Chang said.

“I think the process for the draft syllabus is very challenging,” said Caroline Karp, senior lecturer in environmental studies. She has advised four GISPs in past semesters.

Some students find the process of designing a course valuable. “You also learn a lot from the process of composing a bibliography, justifying and framing (a project’s) creation in the larger context of academia and higher learning,” Rexy Durado ’14 wrote in an email to The Herald. He co-created a GISP on Filipino-American culture that he is taking this semester.

This year, Ucik and fellow IS coordinator Nikhil Kalyanpur ’13 implemented a new step in the independent study review process that provided students with early feedback on their proposals, McSharry wrote.

“Dean McSharry said it was the best batch of proposals she’s seen in her entire time with the program,” Ucik said. “It’s not just the quantity but also the quality of proposals that was improving.”

The process to prepare for a departmental independent study project is less formal, according to the CRC website. Such projects do not require CCC approval but instead go directly through a faculty adviser’s department. Students are encouraged to submit statements to faculty advisers listing goals for their projects, according to the Dean of the College website. On students’ transcripts, departmental projects are all called “Independent Reading and Research.”

“I’m coding for (Associate Professor of Psychology Leslie Welch’s) experiment and then going to lab meetings and reading relevant papers to get a background on the cognitive science part of what I’m doing,” Chloe Kliman-Silver ’16 wrote in an email to The Herald. Welch approached Kliman-Silver at the beginning of the semester about working in her lab, Kliman-Silver wrote. Kliman-Silver did not think she could take a fourth class this semester, so she decided to participate in the independent study instead.


Coordination Complications

Students and professors voiced praise for and concerns about the independent study opportunities.

“If a student has an idea or wants to learn something but it’s not offered at Brown, they should commit and find a way to make their own independent study,” said Floripa Olguin ’16. She is currently taking GISP004: “Native American Slavery and the Transition into Higher Education” with four other students.

“(GISPS) are a great way for students to expand outside of what Brown already offers,” said Elizabeth Hoover, assistant professor of American studies and adviser to the Native American slavery GISP. She also advises a student in a “Small Farm” Academic Internship this semester. Academic internships allow students to combine independent study projects with internships while earning course credit.

A senior faculty member once recommended Hoover not to participate in advising independent studies because professors do not get teaching credit for them, she said.

Professors can advise a maximum of 10 independent studies at a time, Chang said.

Coordinating meeting times and places for GISPs can also be a challenge.

Karp has mixed feelings on GISPs, she said. Students plan a syllabus and then take the class the following semester but do not set aside a time to do the course, she said.

Mikala Murad ’16 was involved in the planning stages of the Native American slavery GISP but eventually decided to drop out.

“I kind of realized communication in the group wasn’t as great as it could have been,” she said. About a week into the semester, a specific day for the group to meet was still not decided, she said.

“They scramble to find a time to meet, which is always difficult because they have to fit it in with all of their other classes. As an adviser I found that very stressful,” Karp said. “It’s a bureaucratic issue that can be solved quite easily if all GISPs can … choose a fixed number of class periods.”

“If we had figured our schedule out from the beginning, it would have been a lot easier and it would have changed my decision to stay in the course or not,” Murad said.

CRC coordinators have thought about creating a “more collaborative study space” for GISPs, Ucik wrote in an email to The Herald. The coordinators are interested in reserving the Memorial Room in the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center for GISPs to use as needed, Ucik wrote. “This is all part of our efforts in general to create more of a community around independent study,” she wrote.


Independent concentrations

Students who want to take their academic independence one step further can apply to complete independent concentrations, the number of which has increased in recent years, according to the CRC. Currently, 26 students are working on completing their own concentrations, according to data given to The Herald by the CRC. Philosophy, politics and economics is currently the most popular independent concentration, with three students declared. Other independent concentrations include logic, jazz studies, aesthetics, deaf and disability studies and intelligence systems.

“There has recently been a lot of focus on raising the awareness of independent concentrations,” Chang said. The application process has been made clearer and less daunting, she said.

“In the past, if you wanted to do an IC you were handed a packet that was 10 pages long, and now the application form is two double-sided pages,” said Evan Schwartz ’13, CRC independent concentrations coordinator.

“A lot of people think it’s impossible to do an IC,” said Schwartz, who is independently concentrating in political economy and education. “Most of the work that goes into it is figuring out exactly what you want to do and how to go about it, but that’s something that everyone should be working on anyway,” he said.

Even with an independent concentration, students need to make sure a majority of their required courses are official Brown classes. No more than two required courses in an independent concentration can be an independent study.

Schwartz said an independent concentration may or may not have an effect on post-graduation employment prospects.

“As most people are finding, no concentration is a shoe-in for getting a job,” he said. “You have to be proactive about it, and the same goes for independent concentrations.”

One Comment

  1. This article is a good example of no concentration. I must say: BDH is incompetent.

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