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Students Find Fit with Special Concentrations

By William C. Marra, Crimson Staff Writer

Four years after Florida, the buildup to this year’s Presidential election was clouded by the fear that problems with electronic and paper ballots would disenfranchise voters throughout the nation.

But Susan E. McGregor ’05 may one day solve those problems.

As an Interactive Information Design concentrator, she says she studies “the way that information is presented in an interactive context—obviously web pages, but also including things like electronic voting machines and ATMS.”

Her thesis, which she will submit this spring, will use “principles of cognitive psychology to create a theory on how devices should be designed based on how we process information.”

This may sound like intriguing fare, but Harvard undergraduates are unlikely to have stumbled upon any courses in Interactive Information Design while thumbing through their Courses of Instruction this past fall.

McGregor is one of only 19 undergraduates enrolled in a “special concentration” designed individually by the student and his or her faculty adviser.

McKay Professor of Applied Mathematics Anthony G. Oettinger, who was the chair of the Standing Committee on Special Concentrations for 25 years before stepping down last year, says that special concentrations are “available for students trying to do something that does not fit the regular concentrations but is doable at Harvard.”

The committee, established in 1971, exists to accommodate students whose academic interests are not contained within the bounds of existing departments, Oettinger says.

The 19 current special concentrators represent a downward trend from the average of 30 to 40 students Oettinger saw during his tenure, he says. And as the College’s ongoing curricular review encourages increase flexibility within and across existing departments, he says the number may drop even further—though “having an escape hatch for students is not a bad idea.”

Concentrators currently study such eclectic topics as leadership, environmental conservation, and ancient architecture and its modern applications, but administrators are careful to warn that a special concentration is not suited for all students.

“You don’t do this lightly,” says Deborah Foster, the head tutor for Special Concentrations. “Special concentrations are for people who know what they want to do” and are willing to do a substantial amount of independent work to complete the 10-part application and construct their own curriculum.


Alexis J. Pozen ’07, who is a special concentrator in Health Policy, says that her concentration does require an abnormally large time commitment, but that she feels it is worth it.

“It makes Harvard seem like a lot smaller of a place,” she says. “You get a lot of personal attention when you’re a special concentrator,” referring to close interaction with her faculty adviser.

Pozen says her special concentration has allowed her to study health policy in a way that the government department, economics department or Health Policy Certificate Program independently could not.

While special concentrators seem to unanimously praise the department, students on the outside are more skeptical.

As a freshman, D.A. Wallach ’07 wanted to special concentrate in 20th century America. But he decided against it because the time commitment was prohibitive and he can pursue the interdisciplinary work that interests him within his current concentration, African-American Studies.

He praises the department but also says that while Foster, the head tutor, was receptive to his ideas, he “never got the impression that she was really trying to get me into [the concentration].”

Wallach also said the committee was skeptical of his wish to study his special concentration in conjunction with another student.

But Foster says these barriers are intended to filter out students not suited for special concentrations.

“If you want to do a special concentration, you have to be independent enough to enjoy the challenge of going out and making this happen,” she says, adding that she does “try to set them in the right direction.”

Malini P. Daniel ’06, who is special concentrating in biology and international policy, agrees with Foster that special concentrations require so much individual effort that they are not for everyone.

“A lot of people I know who are in special concentrations are really passionate about the fields that they’re in,” she says.

Daniel says her special concentration allows her to consider public health issues in a way that the neither the biology department, with its emphasis on lab work, nor the government or economics departments, which ignore the hard sciences, could.


Once students complete the lengthy application, which requires a statement of purpose, detailed course plan, and three to four recommendations, the committee’s acceptance rate is high.

“By the time the student has jumped through all those hoops and generally speaking been coached and assisted and informed all through this would just seem to go without saying that they’d be on the right track,” says Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures Julie A. Buckler, who took over as special concentrations committee chair this fall.

Buckler says that the committee does not want to turn down students who cannot pursue their desired course of study in the existing departments, though she does emphasize that the committee does not approve applications for pre-professional work, such as a pre-law concentration.

But McGregor, whose interactive information design concentration proposal was only accepted on her third try, criticizes the application process.

She says that because the committee only meets twice a year to discuss applicants, students are left in limbo, unsure which classes to take.

“How do you choose between the classes of the concentration you’re in versus the one you may eventually hopefully get credit for?” she says.

But she adds that the temporary indecision was worth it.

“I didn’t feel very well supported by the administrators and faculty beforehand” as a computer science concentrator, she says. “In the end having successfully applied has changed the face of my academic career here in a very, very positive way.”

—Staff writer William C. Marra can be reached at

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