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Jonah Fabricant '10: Missing mavericks: the vanishing independent concentration

"Oh — you go to Brown? So you, like, designed your own major, right?" I heard this refrain so often during my year studying away from Brown that I sometimes wondered if I had failed to take full advantage of being here by opting for a standard concentration rather than the apparently widely-envied independent option. My friends were certainly disappointed that I do not concentrate (or "major") in something avant-garde and wildly creative.

I did come closer to applying to the independent concentration program than many. I attended two information sessions during my sophomore year, and began to write an independent concentration proposal. While my application was derailed by my plans to study abroad, my brief encounter with the process yielded a surprising insight into the program.

About six people attended each informational meeting in Rhode Island Hall, maybe half of whom were more interested in the widely advertised free pizza than the information sheets. While at first I thought this meager turnout could be due to self-selection — why, the mysterious students pursuing independent concentrations were so independent, they didn't need some information session to tell them what was required — I soon learned otherwise.

It seems to be one of the least discussed realities of the Brown curriculum: though the independent spirit of the Brown student is touted in tours and prominently featured on the undergraduate admissions Web site, the independent concentrator is a rarity on campus. From 2005 through 2008, an average of only four students per year graduated with independent concentrations, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

A quick perusal of the Guide to the Independent Concentration Program quickly reveals the source of the program's low participation rate. Steering an independent concentration proposal through the sea of red tape leading to approval is a daunting process indeed. To succeed, an applicant needs to meet several stringent criteria, to demonstrate strong faculty support and to meet the demands of the committee that reviews each proposal.

There are solid reasons for these administrative barriers; a rigorous application process is necessary to make sure that each independent concentration provides an educational experience up to Brown's standards, and that independent concentrators are not duplicating standard concentrations or attempting to shirk requirements. Still, if declaring an independent concentration has to be difficult, the college should seriously consider measures intended to give more assistance to interested students.

Brown could take a lesson from some of its peers. The idea of an independent concentration is not unique. Similar programs with comparable requirements exist at Cornell, Princeton and Harvard, to name a few. At Harvard, which has an undergraduate population comparable in size to our own, almost four times the number of students participate in the structurally similar "special concentration" program.

We know that Crimson students are not, on average, more independent than Brunonians. So what explains the relative success of their individualized concentration program? Part of the disparity may be due to the difference between our schools' curricula. If Brown's standard offerings are more interdisciplinary, they may draw away students who would otherwise gravitate towards independent options elsewhere. Not to mention that the lack of core requirements gives Brown students a lot of freedom to explore their academic interests without jumping through administrative hoops.

However, another source of Brown's dearth of independent concentrators is our lackluster advising system. Since interdisciplinary topics often lack concrete departments, it is inherently more difficult to carve out an independent path than take a pre-scripted one. In addition, there is no real impetus for professors to help students develop independent concentrations. Potential concentrators need more targeted support. For instance, each department could designate a faculty member to work with students who are developing independent concentrations related to his or her field, and to direct them to potential advisors when necessary.

The administration should also put some thought into leveling the playing field between standard and independent concentrations. As it is, standard tracks nominally require an amount of thought similar to that required by the independent concentration committee. The difference is, nobody reviews standard concentration forms and the "capstone" requirements associated with some departmental programs are basically jokes. If every student had to write a real proposal explaining his or her reasoning before declaring a concentration, the independent concentration process would seem a lot less foreign and daunting in comparison.

There is nothing wrong with most people's choice of standard concentrations, but the independent concentration program presents a valuable opportunity that is being under-utilized, and that's a shame. Like many academic problems at Brown, the situation is a result of a combination of administrative and advising structures that are less than ideal. Brown has a national reputation as the place to go for independent, creative courses of study. We should work to find ways to live up to that reputation.

Jonah Fabricant '10 wishes his independent concentration in underwater basket weaving had panned out.



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