The Road Less Traveled By
"The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels," wrote Henry David Thoreau (Class of 1837). "How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!"
Since 1971 the least-beaten path at Harvard has led right through the Yard and up University Hall's front steps to the Special Concentration Department. Although the current Harvard undergraduate community includes 6578 individuals, the do-it-yourself concentration crowd numbers only 24.
"I started out as an economics major and I just couldn't stand it," says James D. Chung '88, who says he found he was "more interested in the human issues of how people interact." His special concentration, Organizational Behavior, focuses on how people interact within business and societal frameworks.
Since Chung's freshman year, the Psychology Department has developed its own Organizational Behavior track so students like Chung will be able to stay in the department. But other undergraduates find that their desired course of study simply cannot fit within existing concentrations.
Although the Classics Department and the History Department both occupy buildings in the Yard, Steven J. Snyder '88 says he found that "Robinson Hall and Boylston Hall are really far apart." The Dunster House resident started in Classics and Allied Fields, but his interest in a more historical approach got him "into a kind of tutorial bungle," he says. Now he is doing Roman History and Civilization.
Current special concentrations range from Neurolinguistics--a tightly focused plan of study--broad fields like Theatre Arts or Latin American Studies. But all of the have-it-your-way study plans share one characteristic. They cannot now be accommodated by Harvard's 40-odd established undergraduate concentrations.
Designing a special concentration can be both a privilege and a burden, students say. "It lets you build from scratch," says Electronic Arts concentrator Charles S. English '88.
"You're alone and you're independent," says Betty C. Ludaici '90, who concentrates in Eastern Europe and International Relations. "It's scary but it's amazing."
Perhaps the biggest barrier faced by students who want to design their own major is ignorance. Many members of the Harvard community, students and faculty alike, are not aware of the interdisciplinary option. At the beginning of last term, when one special concentrator looked for a departmental meeting within her house, she says she was met with a joke about being "special."
"I went to ask one of the masters of my house where I should go, and he didn't even know that Special Concentrations existed," she says. Both the master and a medical school professor "thought I was kidding," she says.
Special Concentrations' shrouded nature is partially deliberate. The department consciously does not advertise. "We're not pushing Special Concentrations, says Carol S. Thorne, the Special Concentrations Department staff assistant. "We prefer to be found."
However, many of those who find the department, despite the dearth of billboards, say they feel they are "getting the things that Harvard is made of," as Allison B. Charney '89 puts it.
Charney says she wants to be an opera singer and decided on Harvard rather than a conservatory in order to approach her interests in "a well-rounded intellectual way."
Her special concentration allows her to get both a liberal arts education and the training she needs for music. "I wanted to learn the languages necessary, history and fundamental music background." Her program has entailed studying French, German and Italian as well as personal voice coaching from Professor of Music Earl Kim. One of her projects was an attempt to transcribe music passed down orally in her family from her great-great-grandfather who was a cantor in Russia, she says.
Special Concentrations is intended to be a "safety valve" for "students whose interests would not otherwise be accommodated in the normal framework" of the college, says Professor of Applied Mathematics Anthony G. Oettinger, chairman of the Standing Committee on Special Concentrations. "It's an option available to students who have exhausted all the options," says Special Concentrations Director and Head Tutor Georgene B. Herschbach.
For Allison M. Ugalde '88, the special concentrations option was just that. History and Literature's "Hispanic America" track "was nice at first," she says, "but I wanted to do something more contemporary." Between semesters of her junior year, Ugalde switched to Latin American Studies and International Relations and that "gave me a way out," she says.
In order to take the special concentrations road, students must prove to the Standing Committee that they have exhausted other avenues for their plan of study. Since many departments, such as History and Government, already have mechanisms which allow students to combine two fields in a joint concentration, the Standing Committee requires would-be special concentrators to check these options out first.
Although many students find that combined concentrations fill their needs, some undergraduates who wish to integrate two or more fields find that a special concentration is the only feasible option, Herschbach says.
Combined concentrations usually require majoring in one of the departments and minoring in the other, and "some students don't want to give primary emphasis to either one," says Professor of Social Relations Philip J. Stone, a Standing Committee member who also advises several special concentrators.
Rigid departmental requirements are one of the main reasons why students turn towards University Hall, students and officials say. The Special Concentrations Department tries to smooth the path for some students by formally asking other departments to ease their requirements, Herschbach says. But she adds, "Some departments will simply not be flexible."
Charles English started out in Computer Science, which he describes as "creatively stifling." After examining the options in Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) and Computer Science, "I found I didn't really fit into either department very well," he says. While some departments have requirements in common, VES and Computer Science, according to English, are not "amenable" to each other.
At the suggestion of Arthur L. Loeb, VES senior lecturer and Standing Committee member, English is now combining both his interests with his Electronic Arts concentration. Instead of pursuing a non-honors concentration in Computer Science and taking all of his electives in the VES department, he says he can now follow his interests and integrate them for a honors degree.
Special Concentrations requirements "are a do-it-yourself kind of thing," says Alexander Shustorovich '88, who concentrates in Biotechnology and Government.
An honors degree requires eight-and-a-half full courses and non-honors requires seven. "I don't really have electives," says Charney who decided to take six courses sophomore fall and seven that spring.
But she adds that she views her concentration as "all electives--there's no 'They say I have to take it.'" Nonetheless, no one-not even a special concentrator--is so special as to be exempt from the Core. "But," she added, "I made up my own exemptions."
The Special Concentrations Department also helps its students because it "cuts out a lot of red tape" in taking graduate school courses, says Meredith G. Lazo '89, who is also concentrating in, Organizational Behavior.
"You have a lot of freedom," she says. And Shustorovich calls Special Concentrations "the last glimmer of hope in the bureaucracy."
Nonetheless, some would-be special concentrators find the application process involves a fair amount of its own red tape.
A student must submit a plan of study listing the courses he plans to take in the remaining years under special concentration status as well as an alternative plan within the closest existing department. He must then argue convincingly that the difference between the two is a crucial one.
"The application is really harsh," says Ugalde. "It's almost harder than the one to get in here."
There are three application dates each year and the Committee has been known to send proposals back to the drawing board with advice for reformulation. Thorne's favorite special concentration, a study of game theory and nuclear decision-making, required three submissions before the concentration was accepted, she says. Shustorovich, who studies the relationship between government and science, says he got his proposal accepted after two attempts.
Thorne explains that the nine-part application process is one way the department tests the mettle of would-be concentrators. "Special Concentrations is not for everyone," said Thorne. "If you can't get through the application, you can't do the work."
Oettinger says the Special Concentrations Department is like any other department in its standards for approving a proposal. The Committee tests whether a plan keeps in mind the goals of a liberal arts education, Oettinger says. It cannot be just "a wonderful thing to think about in odd hours," he says.
"Sometimes a student is besotted with a particular idea," says Stone, who advises Organizational Behavior special concentrators.
A good idea may be rejected not because it is "something that's glitzy today and gone tomorrow," Oettinger says, but because it is simply not feasible.
Charney says she thinks finding an adviser for one's concentration is perhaps the "hardest part" of the process, because the faculty member must not only be interested the particular field but also be willing to make the hefty time commitment that advising a special concentrator often requires.
"You do so much work outside of simply meeting with the person," says Loeb of his role as an-adviser.
The Special Concentrations Department rarely accepts freshmen, in part because many Yardlings have not had time to sample the departments. In addition, Charney says that securing a tenured professor as one's adviser is preferable for a special concentrator in order to "guarantee that they're going to be here." And "most freshmen don't have access to professors like that," she says.
Charney's case was unusual in that her proposal was accepted at the end of her freshman year. Her program met with immediate enthusiasm from both Professor of Music Luise Vosgerchian and the former Special Concentrations Head Tutor Kay Hospitz. "I had it lucky with Professor Vosgerchian," Charney says. "I had all the elements ready for me."
Leslie T. Chang '91 is one of the handful of freshmen who have already ventured into the office this year to ask about a possible program. After meeting with Thorne, Change now says she will wait and further investigate the departmental offerings. "I guess I'll shop a little more," she says.
The Special Concentrations Department's greatest strength may be the opportunity it offers for individual attention, students and faculty members say. "She keeps tabs on my social life," says Charney of her adviser. "She is my department."
"Because of the one-on-one relationship with your advisor, you get so much individual attention," Lazo says. "It's more of a small college environment."
"Your adviser is your support," says English. "Your adviser is the one person responsible for keeping you on track," says the Adams House resident.
Doing a special concentration requires a certain amount of self-reliance, students and administrators say.
"They don't waffle around much," says English of his fellow special concentrators. "A lot have had time off," he says. They are "reasonably well-focused and with an independent temperament," says Thorne."
However motivated you might be, "a department is better for anybody," says Thorne. "Going through a department, you have it all laid out for you on a silver platter," Lazo says. But she adds, "if you have an interest in multiple fields, go to Special Concentrations."
Being on one's own can also be a bit lonely, concentrators say. Christina T. Holt '87-'88, who concentrated in Anthropology and Film: Theory and Practice, says she felt "a twinge of jealousy" when her roommate turned in her History and Literature thesis. The History and Literature concentrators locked their door and threw a huge party after meeting the deadline. But Holt had nobody with whom to share her relief after she completed her anthropological analysis of photographs taken in Benares, India.
But a little loneliness "is nowhere near a good enough reason" not to do a special concentration, Holt says. Such events are "the trappings of a college education," she says, adding, "If you like something, that's the important thing."
And most special concentrators say they don't miss the comraderie of a larger, established department. "I need little support from other people to enjoy what I'm doing," says English, who says that his social life lies outside of his academics.
All in all, says Snyder, "special concentrations is very, very nice." Says English, "the special concentrators I know are the happiest people I know."