Special Majors Give Free Choice

News Feature

Justin M. Levitt '95 came to Harvard intending to major in engineering. But halfway through his first year, he changed his mind.

"Essentially, I was flipping through Fields of Concentration and didn't find anything I fell in love with," he says. "I did a 180 degree turn halfway through freshman year."

So Levitt decided to make his own concentration, in Visual Propaganda. He studies topics such as campaign art and commercials.

"I knew I was interested in politics. I had recently become interested in art, and was deeply interested in psychology," he says. "This seemed a good way to blend the three."

For Levitt and about 35 other students, Harvard's special concentrations option is a godsend. It allows them the freedom to craft a field of study outside the Faculty's 41 concentrations, with their rigid requirements and narrow specialties.

But Levitt and other students say the University seems to do all it can to make it difficult for undergraduates to create special concentrations.

"It was a nightmare," says Haile N. Adamson '96 of the application process. "Trying to find somebody to support my ideas was the hardest thing.

"I almost said 'forget it' several times," she says. "But once you get approved and you are doing what you want it is worth it."

Freedom to Choose

Special concentrators say they like the freedom offered by the independent fields of study.

"You make up your own reading list, your own requirements for the course, the things you are going to talk about each day," Levitt says. "You are really controlling what you are learning."

The requirements for a special concentration are not easy. For a non-honors concentration, a student must take 14 half courses. An honors degree requires 17, plus a thesis or an equivalent final project.

With non-honors requirements, a concentrator takes two or three semesters of self-designed tutorial with a self-selected tutor. For honors, a student must take tutorial every year.

But students say the work is worth it. In special concentrations, they can get the interdisciplinary studies most standard departments can't offer.

For example, Chuck J. Adomanis '95 is concentrating in theater architecture. For his senior thesis, he is redesigning the theater in Lowell House's basement.

His classes come from visual and environmental studies, history and literature, comparative literature, dramatic arts and the Graduate School of Design.

Ethan R. Mollick '97, who is concentrating in science, technology and public policy, will take courses in the government, economics and engineering departments and at the Kennedy School as well.

"You can use all of Harvard's resources to do something wonderful," he says.

Fields of special concentration range from Latin American studies to computer and information technology, from writing for performance to computational neuroscience.

The special concentrations cater mainly to two types of students, says Garth O. McCavana, head tutor of the special concentrations.

They are "students interested in doing a concentration that may exist somewhere else that doesn't exist at Harvard," he says, and "people who just want to do interdisciplinary work."

Difficult Application

Special concentrations offer choice and flexibility the rest of Harvard can't, but the University makes it difficult for undergraduates to pursue them.

"It's a nine-part application process," McCavana says. "About 50 percent of the people who come in here do not reappear after I hand them the application."

Students begin the process by going to McCavana with an idea. He gives them the application form.

They then prepare two plans of study, one for the proposed special concentration and a contingency plan if they are denied.

"It is sort of challenging, because of the fact that the department actually asks you to give them the plan of study in your concentration, and also an alternative plan of study," Adomanis says.

Applicants also need a reference from a tutor or proctor, and statement of support from the departments most closely related to the proposed field of study.

Then, the student must find an advisor to guide him or her for all three years in the concentration.

For most students, this is the hardest part, since most faculty members have little incentive to take on charges outside their departments. The Faculty gives professors no compensation for serving as advisors, McCavana says.

"This is purely extra responsibility for the faculty advisor," he says.

For Charles V. Graham '96, who is concentrating in computer and information technology, the "process was worse than applying to college."

Levitt spent his entire sophomore fall searching for an advisor, he says.

"From September to December it was almost an additional course in terms of time commitment," Levitt says. "You have to go see 30 or 40 people."

Adomanis had to put off applying to the program until the fall of his junior year because he was unable to find an advisor before the spring deadline.

"I tried to apply twice to special concentrations," he says, "and once I couldn't get a final app through because I couldn't find an advisor."

Concentrators also have to find a tutor to work with them on a weekly basis in a self-designed tutorial. Tutors are often graduate students who are paid for their time.

Levitt intends to start "wandering around Dudley, spending lots of time in the Cafe Gato Rojo, which is a tremendously popular place for people in search of tutors."

Mollick intends to use his time in a course at the Kennedy School to further his campaign for a tutor.

"I am going to try to find some starving graduate students at the Kennedy School," he said.

McCavana says the application process is designed to ensure that those in the concentrations are really equipped to handle them.

"It's designed as a hurdle to see if people are able to work independently," he says.

About 80 percent of those who apply do get into their concentration of choice.

The remaining 20 percent are usually deferred, not rejected.

And for those who get in, the concentration is the best thing Harvard could offer, students say.

"It's a pain in the ass, there is no denying that, but fundamentally it is worth it," Levitt says.CrimsonJennifer L. Both--Justin M. Levitt '95