The Second Dimension

Secondary fields have a long pro-con list—which column will win?

Honor S. W. Mcgee

A thesis on the history of African American chemistry isn't an appealing prospect.

For hundreds of seniors in February, the word “thesis” becomes a blight upon social life and mental stability. Sleepless nights are filled with furious typing to close the gap of that last seventy pages. Invitations to another Fox party or Advo initation are quickly passed up in favor of thesis cramming or Facebook-group making. But for Russell I. Krupen ’07, a former Sociology and History joint-concentrator, the all-terrible thesis is no longer a worry.

“It was all sort of at once,” says Krupen. “I knew that secondary fields were going to come at the same time [that] I knew I wasn’t going to do a thesis...It was perfect.”

Krupen isn’t the only one who is relieved and encouraged by the prospect of secondary fields. Students are excited about the freedom to explore divergent interests without jeopardizing their future career options or being forced into theses they have no desire to write. But administrators and some students worry that in a culture as competitive as Harvard’s, the potential for abuse is high.

FOOTLOOSE AND THESIS-FREE

Shira R. Brettman ’07, a joint concentrator in Music and History, is excited about secondary fields for the possibilities they open to joint concentrators, who often have a tough time writing theses that yoke together potentially unrelated fields.

“[A] secondary field is probably what I would have done because then I wouldn’t be required to write a thesis,” says Brettman, who didn’t have the choice when she first arrived at Harvard as a transfer student.



She sees secondary fields and joint concentrations as different categories. Secondary fields are for students who wish to pursue two divergent passions, she says, while joint concentrations are for those willing to write a thesis on their intersection.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m not really part of any department at all,” continues Brettman, airing an oft-cited complaint of joint concentrators about the lack of advising.

“I think joint concentrations are kind of a nightmare for students,” says Undergraduate Council (UC) President Ryan A. Petersen ’08. Petersen served as a student representative on the Educational Policy Committee that formulated the secondary field proposals. “There are all these bureaucratic hoops that students must jump though, and I think [a secondary field] is a much easier process.”



POOR PROFESSORS NO MORE

Secondary fields also give students the ability to explore their interests without fear of joblessness after graduation. In more obscure fields such as Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies or Folklore and Mythology, a “practical” secondary field such as Economics can be a very attractive option.

“I know a lot of people in the music department who are joint concentrators just because it’s a very risky thing to be just [a] Music undergrad,” says Brettman. “They want to not throw all their eggs in one basket.”

After conducting a survey during finals, the Economics department expects an overall increase of 100-150 students per class year. According to Visiting Professor of Economics Jeffrey A. Miron, at least 50 seniors have contacted the department to inquire about obtaining a secondary field in Economics before they graduate.

The director of the Office of Career Services, William Wright-Swadel, points out that a secondary field is a valid way of demonstrating interest in an area relevant to a job. It can also be used to express diverse interests or signal that the job applicant has a certain skill set.

However, Wright-Swadel is quick to refute the idea that a certain concentration locks an undergraduate into a job post-Harvard. He worries about the dangers of seeking a secondary field in an area of little or no interest to the student. “The greatest chance that [the] secondary concentration has of making a negative impact really has to do with performance in the concentration rather than the secondary concentration itself.”



BEING ONE OF THE “HOT PEOPLE”

In a student body stocked with career-conscious individuals, it is not hard to imagine that some students will utilize the secondary field to buff up their resumes.

Although the implementation of secondary fields is meant to benefit students, members of the Harvard faculty are wary of its traps and downfalls.

“I was not enthusiastic about secondary fields because I feared and still fear that it will play [to the] credentialing instinct. Students often feel that the most important thing is not getting an education,” says Harry R. Lewis ’68, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and former dean of Harvard College.

Lewis’s department is excited that secondary fields will attract more students to Computer Sciences, but Lewis still expresses doubts about students’ motivations.

“I worry that people are not really interested in the field but will do a secondary anyway because they think it’ll be worth something,” says Lewis. “They may feel pressure from their parents or peers or peer’s parents that unless you do it, that you are not one of the hot people.”

Assistant Dean of the College Stephanie H. Kenen is similarly concerned about peer pressure. “Even though it’s optional we do worry that all students will feel like they will have to do it and reduce flexibility in the long run.”

As the dean in charge of approving secondary field proposals, Kenen fears that secondary fields will increase the numbers in larger concentrations, straining department resources.



WAITING AND WATCHING

When the UC was asked to vote on its opinion of secondary fields, only one student expressed dissent. On a campus with so many multi-talented students, it is no surprise that secondary fields are well received, but it still remains to be seen how students will put them to use.

“I hate to see students taking things they don’t really love or want to learn about...in order to get a piece of paper they think will impress employers,” says Lewis.

In five years, the College will review secondary fields to implement necessary changes in the system. Until then, both students and faculty will be watching the effects unfold.