At the beginning of this semester, I shopped an introductory photography class. As usual, the classroom had more prospective students than seats available, so the professor informed us that VISA concentrators would be prioritized in class registration. After all the concentrators had been admitted, there ended up being no spots left for non-concentrators. As an alternative, the professor apologetically suggested we enroll in a RISD class or a community college course. Even though I wanted to explore a new discipline at Brown, my only option was to learn elsewhere. In that moment I was faced with the reality that the Open Curriculum is not always as open as it purports to be, especially in certain departments.
Brown prides itself on the Open Curriculum’s ability to promote interdisciplinary learning. Brown students have diverse academic interests, and without core requirements, they have the power to take classes in the various fields they care about. However, Brown’s omission of minor options opposes this ethos. In an effort to pursue multiple interests, students may choose to double concentrate, which takes up more class slots. Moreover, those who don’t choose to double concentrate can’t get into classes in competitive departments that prioritize concentrators. If Brown truly strives to promote intellectual curiosity, it should offer minors to undergraduates.
The lack of minors disadvantages students who are not yet sure of their future career paths. These students, who may be torn between different fields of study in the sciences or the humanities, close off opportunities if they don’t have degrees in both fields. Brown offers concentrations that seek to bridge the divide between STEM and humanities, such as Science, Technology and Society, and if students can’t find an area of study that meets their needs, they can design an independent concentration. However, these options do little for students who have two unrelated interests. For instance, if a student can’t decide between a career in nursing or in political journalism, an independent concentration may not encompass both of their interests. Thus, without minors, students who want to keep their career paths open are forced to double concentrate, adding to their undergraduate workload.
Double concentrating isn’t always desirable because doing so eats up many class slots. For example, if someone wanted to pursue a Bachelors of Science with honors in material chemistry and a Bachelors of Arts in visual art, they would need to take 32 classes total. But if Brown offered minors, the student could still study material chemistry and visual art while leaving enough time to explore unfamiliar interests.
The second drawback of not offering minors concerns an insidious flaw in class registration that has plagued the student body for ages. It’s nearly impossible for non-concentrators to take classes in certain departments, namely the arts. Sometimes it’s even difficult for concentrators to get in — literary arts is notorious for its absurdly competitive sample-based classes and introductory classes that fill up immediately. Visual arts classes present similar challenges. In fact, the lack of sample-based admission to visual arts classes presents an additional difficulty to non-concentrators. Even students who demonstrate talent for visual arts may never be able to take a class past the entry-level while at Brown.
While increasing the number of students in classes could alleviate some of these issues, COVID restrictions, practical limitations such as the number of easels that can fit in a classroom and the fact that professors can only work with so many students in a workshop at a time, make this unfeasible. Another solution would be to increase the number of courses offered, but Brown has not done that either. This problem can be traced in part to Brown’s implementation of the Open Curriculum. Of course, the Open Curriculum has its perks: the S/NC grade option, the lack of grade point averages and the fact that no one has to be subjected to a physical education class. That being said, core curricula have at least one thing going for them: Schools must provide enough arts classes for every student to fill their core requirement in the arts. Brown doesn’t need to hire as many arts professors because fewer students need to take their courses to graduate. If Brown had minors, students could secure spots in classes they’re interested in outside of their concentration.
Although Brown is known for its open curriculum structure, that doesn’t necessarily mean the University is the best at it. Of the 10 other schools in the U.S. that have an open curriculum, only Grinnell College implements the concept similarly to Brown. Six of the schools — Hamilton College, Smith College, the University of Rochester, Vassar College, Wake Forest University and Wesleyan University — offer minors; two — Hampshire College and the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study — allow more flexibility in how students design their concentrations in a way that reduces the need for minors; and the remaining one, Amherst College, has 11 certificate programs covering a variety of humanities and STEM fields that students can choose from. Minors do not contradict the original inspiration for the Open Curriculum: promoting interdisciplinary study.
Like Amherst, Brown offers certificate programs as an alternative to minors, but only three — Data Fluency, Entrepreneurship and Engaged Scholarship. Engaged Scholarship is the only certificate program that offers the possibility of artistic pursuits — students pursuing the certificate must complete a project in the community, which could be in the arts, however the program primarily focuses on building civic and social justice knowledge, and so isn’t an appropriate substitute for an arts minor. Brown’s certificate programs don’t allow students to pursue education in a variety of departments, including those with the most competitive classes.
Brown pioneered the Open Curriculum to expand academic exploration, but students with diverse interests end up getting pigeonholed, unable to pursue multiple fields unless they choose to double concentrate. Furthermore, students with a passion outside of their chosen concentration often cannot get into high-demand classes due to a scarcity of course offerings. Until these institutional problems are resolved, students will continue to struggle to follow the full range of their interests.
Implementing minors could alleviate some of these problems by allowing students to develop multiple specialties without using valuable class slots to complete a double concentration. Additionally, minors would ensure students have opportunities to take classes in topics they care about outside of their main concentration. By offering minors in departments that represent a breadth of skills and interests, Brown would allow students to pursue diverse careers, honoring the philosophy of the Open Curriculum long after they graduate.