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Independent concentrations reflect students’ interdisciplinary interests

Faculty support, student initiative needed to establish new independent concentrations

Kiera Peltz ’16 is concentrating in happiness. As sophomores rush to declare their concentrations Monday, some may follow in the path of students like Peltz who have taken the opportunity to design their own independent concentrations, surpassing the boundaries of traditional academic tracks.

Peltz said she hoped to “transcend the classroom” and focus on what she really wanted to learn. After becoming dissatisfied with the courses in her initial field of interest — political science — she created the IC “Happiness.”

Existing concentrations already offer much flexibility in the form of different tracks, said Dean of the College Maud Mandel. But students who have an interdisciplinary passion that “falls squarely between or among several units” and “really want to take charge of their own education” have the opportunity to create an IC, she said.

The rationale behind an IC is to facilitate students’ “deep learning” within a subject, which transcends “superficial learning,” Mandel said. Crafting an IC is empowering but simultaneously difficult, she said.

Mandel stressed the connection between the open curriculum and concentration choice. When navigating the open curriculum, students must know a bit about how they want to “map” their way through college, she said, adding that “life is an open curriculum.”

Students who end up pursuing an IC must undergo a rigorous process that includes finding a faculty adviser, creating a list of suitable courses and getting approval from the College Curriculum Council.

While the majority of students choose an existing concentration, many of those who create an IC begin with the realization that no existing concentrations satisfy their interdisciplinary academic interests.

“When I came into Brown, I was so ecstatic to take any course that I wanted, but by the end of my first year I felt defeated, confused and didn’t really know what would keep me up late at night,” Peltz said. “I promised myself when I came to Brown I wasn’t going to take classes anymore just to get a good grade. I really wanted to learn the material and stay up late at night reading books because I enjoyed it.”

Peltz’s IC takes on a “thematic” approach by trying to determine “the fundamental nature of happiness,” she said. The concentration culls from the religious studies, sociology and philosophy departments as Peltz tries to find a “cohesive definition of happiness.”

Frankie Troncoso ’16 created the IC “Philosophy, Politics and the Law” when he realized that both the philosophy and political science concentrations required courses outside his “scope of interest,” he said.

Troncoso’s IC combines the legal aspects of courses from multiple departments, including political science, Troncoso said, adding that a variation of “Philosophy, Politics and the Law” is an available concentration at several peer institutions.

To get “Philosophy, Politics, and the Law” approved by the CCC, Troncoso had to create a list of courses that “would fit a good curriculum” and discuss the potential IC with student advisers, all of whom gave him “positive feedback,” Troncoso said.

Crafting an IC is the “epitome of being the architect of your own curriculum,” he said. “It’s been advantageous in many ways, as people outside of Brown find it very interesting if you’re doing an independent concentration,” he added, noting that his summer employer, Goldman Sachs, found his IC interesting.

Once a student’s IC is approved, other students may concentrate in it without having to undergo the approval process. If an IC grows in faculty, status and resources, it has the possibility to turn into an existing concentration.

Contemplative studies was an IC before becoming the University’s newest concentration in 2014, said Harold Roth P’17, professor of religious studies and director of the Contemplative Studies Initiative.

“It’s not that easy — you just can’t create it overnight,” Roth said. “So it took a few years, but we started to have independent concentrators.”

The benefit of being an existing concentration resides mostly in the assurance that students are part of a “well thought of” and “rigorous” curriculum, Roth said.

ICs that become existing concentrations are often spearheaded by faculty members, with student interest accumulating over time, as was the case with Contemplative Studies, said Kathleen McSharry, associate dean of the curriculum. The CCC looks at ICs that have integrity, structure, resources and continuity to determine whether they should become standing concentrations, McSharry said. Concentrations can dissolve when student interest decreases, which usually occurs with tracks that have been discontinued within set concentrations, she added.

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