College Moves Forward With Discussion on Majors

Students in a literature class, one of the disciplines that would be offered as an optional major. Photo courtesy of U.S. News

Students in a literature class, one of the disciplines that would be offered as an optional major. Photo courtesy of U.S. News

Last April, an email sent to the student body by Deans Kanwal Singh and Danny Trujillo outlining the prospect of “optional fields of study,” or “optional majors” sparked some interest and controversy among students and faculty alike.  Several Student Senate meetings were held with the issue at the center of discussion, and a town hall meeting was held shortly after the email was sent, where the majority of students present voted no to the idea.  

After an abrupt uprise in dialogue on the matter, however, discussion on the potential integration of optional programs of study seemed to die away just as quickly as it had come.  Conversation among the student body may have fizzled to a low murmur, but administration has remained steadfast in their pursuit to potentially bring majors to Sarah Lawrence.

In order to understand the implications of this issue, it is necessary to go back and examine how talk of bringing majors to SLC came about. In 1982, the New York State Education Department awarded the college with the ability to grant degrees in twenty-six undergraduate fields.  Areas of study were approved in subjects ranging from Literature to Chemistry to Theatre.  Since this time, however, the college has only granted students one degree: a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts.  

The proposal made last year by Deans Singh and Trujillo suggested that students could potentially receive degrees in some other field of study – or they could at least have an area of focus noted on their transcript in an official way.  

The other half of administration’s logic lies in the lack of visibility to the prospective student on online college search engines due to its lack of majors.  “We want students to find us,” Dean Trujillo said simply. Because Sarah Lawrence never actually granted the degrees approved in 1982, the college is not present in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which feeds the College Board and other notable search engines used by high school students when searching for their future college.  

Dean Singh explained that there there has not been a conclusive decision to reactivate the majors approved in the ‘80s.   

Despite over six months passing since the issue was first brought to the student body, Dean Trujillo explained, “This process is still in its exploratory phase.” He noted that administration is in the process of collecting information from the state of New York to determine what needs to be done in order to reactivate the list of majors approved in 1982. 

Drew Cressman, a biology professor who was involved with the dialogue with the state, commented on the measures taken over the summer.  “Our process involves providing the state with documentation indicating what a field of study in Biology would look like” he said.  The process also included recognizing the goals and courses offered that a potential biology major could entail.  

A clearly distinguished program of study interests the Biology Department, as Cressman added, “Many students are already completing a Biology field of study, it’s just not formally designated on their transcript.”

Dean Singh noted that she is actively speaking with faculty members at committee meetings and otherwise and asking them to work in their departments to try and determine how a potential program of study could look.  

Literature professor Nick Mills noted that, while it is still a work in progress, his department is working with an open mind, and also looking to collaborate with other departments.  “In the literature department, we are working out what a field of study would look like, and we will also consult soon with other faculty in Global Studies and Languages, where literature is also taught,” he said.

Similarly, Chet Biscardi of the music program is working with the department on more conclusive answers.  “We might require an audition at the end of a student’s sophomore year or the beginning of their junior year to declare a music major,” he said, adding the possibility of a required seminar during a music major’s senior year in conjunction with a major’s concert and an essay.

In terms of the specific departments that will offer majors, while still undetermined, Dean Singh noted to that they are looking beyond what is included in the list of majors that was approved in 1982.

“Thirty-five years ago our curriculum looked different, so there may be things on this list that are no longer relevant,” Dean Singh said.  In addition to removing subjects from the list, several could be added as well, such as Gender and Sexuality Studies and Computer Science.  

A major concern is that some department may not have the capacity to provide students with enough courses to fulfill a credit requirement implemented by certain majors.  On this point, Dean Singh called upon the state’s main concern that there are enough resources for students: “The state’s interest is in the protection of the student,” she said. 

On the whole, Dean Singh foresees students wishing to pursue a specific course of study would have to complete somewhere between 30 or 40 credits in a particular discipline, but the number could vary depending on department.  She also noted some programs of study could require a more hierarchical approach, such as biology, that begins with a general course that then branches out into more advanced and more specific courses.  Others, however, do not require a path that is so clearly defined.

In addition, conference work – which often dips into disciplines different from a course itself – is a huge chunk of a student’s workload.  Dean Singh made it clear that conference work needs to be considered as this process continues.

“Conference work is a really big piece of the scholarly and artistic work that all of our students do, so it absolutely must be a part of any system we create,” she said.

Dean Singh also notes that this process would be less like the typical college major in which you are required declare at the end of your sophomore year.  “The conversations that we’ve had on campus are that this would be something that would be very much retrospective.” In other words, a student could look at the classes they have taken and recognize they focused in a particular area and officially notate that on their transcript.  

But above all, Dean Singh emphasized that from the college's perspective, the fundamental values of Sarah Lawrence College will not be manipulated; whatever shape majors will take will not affect the pedagogy of an individualized liberal arts education that the college has upheld for so long.

There are, however, obvious concerns with this issue.  Some fear that the individualized education the college’s current structure provides could be in jeopardy, and others are worried that the already hectic registration process could be made worse by students wishing to pursue a certain major.

LGBT Studies professor Julie Abraham expressed some of her reservations about the idea: “What we do not want to do, I think, is inadvertently establish a two tier system, with some courses fitting into 'fields of study' and others outside. Nor do we want to reshape our LGBT studies curriculum in order to fit into a 'fields of study' system,” she explained. “Gender and Sexuality Studies/LGBT Studies classes are not just intended for students who want to focus in those areas, but for a wide range of students who take what they learn in our classes into the many other avenues in which they are working.”

First to allay some fears, Dean Singh stressed that any majors would be optional to each student.  She noted that students at Sarah Lawrence often follow a very coherent path, and this system would just be a way to solidify that path on the transcript for those students who wish to do so.  

She also warns against the use of the term “major” advocating instead to refer to this matter as a “program of study.”  

“We are, always have been, and will continue to be an institution committed to the liberal arts,” emphasizing that the interdisciplinary studies at the college’s core will not be threatened if administration and Sarah Lawrence as a whole move forward with allowing students to pursue specific majors.

Still, those who are hesitant towards the idea of majors have valid concerns, and as with any issue, it is important to voice any worries.  

“I would really welcome suggestions on how to get the widest input on student voices – I think that is something we struggle with campus wide,” Dean Singh said.

So whether you are for or against this important issue, it is vital that you make your voice heard as discussions move forward into the coming months, because, as Dean Singh simply puts it,  “We have to know what students think.”

Olivia Diulus '20

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.