This piece by Anna Gonzales appeared in The Phoenix on November 12, 2015
Danny Hirschel Burns was the 2014 recipient of the Peace and Justice Studies Association Undergraduate Thesis Award for the thesis he talks about in this article.
Special majors forge own innovative academic paths
While most students at the college choose to major in one or more of its nearly fifty academic departments, some forge their own path. Pursuing their intellectual passions and often generating innovative interdisciplinary work, a handful of students graduate each year with special majors in subjects ranging across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.
Some students with special majors can follow a relatively well-established existing curriculum, one created by previous special majors or with programs at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, or the University of Pennsylvania. Others, such as Claudia Lo ’16, who is a special honors major in gender and digital culture, design entirely new programs, working closely with faculty mentors.
Lo’s special major seems to have grown naturally out of her life experience and her penchant for academic analysis. As a child, Lo spent much more time playing video games than watching movies or television, or listening to music.
“That’s what I did, and so for me it was unthinkable not to study them,” Lo said. Growing up queer and Asian, Lo added, increased her desire to study video games — in which these representations are rarely included — and figure out her relationship to these works.
Lo first got the chance to take an academic approach to her fascination with video games during a film and media studies department seminar entitled Women in Pop Culture during her freshman year. The next year, Lo took another class in the department, the History and Theory of Video Games, and realized she could actually pursue video game studies as a potential major.
Video game studies, Lo explained, do not really exist at the undergraduate level in the area in which Lo is interested — these tend to cover game design rather than the theory-based critical approaches Lo takes. This was one of the challenges of designing Lo’s special honors major, she said, since besides the History and Theory of Video Games class, there were barely any courses which specifically related to what Lo wanted to study.
To meet the requirements for designing a special honors major, Lo combined a wide variety of different courses in film and media studies, sociology and anthropology, and gender and sexuality studies. She also conducted an independent study and is in the process of writing a double-credit thesis, looking at the relationships between video game players and the controllers they use and thinking about digital bodies, drawing on feminist theories of embodiment. Lo is also writing her thesis using a text adventure game engine called Twine.
Though the process has been complicated, Lo’s special major has allowed her to guide her work in her classes towards exactly the topics in which she is most interested. She greatly appreciates this flexibility and freedom.
“A large part of my major has been, ‘How far can I get away with this?’ It turns out, pretty far,” Lo said.
Lo has found the different departments her major fits under extremely supportive of her plan of study and her interests. All of her professors have been very excited, she said, by the prospect of reaching out to contacts who might have knowledge about the different areas Lo has studied in order to find Honors examiners.
Now, Lo is searching for and applying to graduate school programs relevant to her area of study. Part of this has been a hunt for the departments under which critical theory approaches to video game studies are housed — Lo says that these can range from “New Media” departments to “Screens, Arts, and Culture” to English literature and sociology departments.
“It’s incredibly interdisciplinary, on account of no one knowing what they’re doing. You can get away with anything, and that’s part of what makes it really exciting,” Lo explained.
Students can also create special majors in established programs, such as Black Studies, for which many courses are specifically cross-listed. Kara Bledsoe ’16 spent several semesters as a chemistry major before declaring a special major in Black Studies.
“I took a Black Studies course just on a whim, because I thought, I’ve never taken a class like this before,” Bledsoe said. She took both an introductory and a history class listed as Black Studies courses.
“I just really enjoyed the material and it felt like it was relevant to my life,” Bledsoe said. “I really felt like it informed my life experience and it gave me the framework I needed to actually study what I was interested in.”
Bledsoe has greatly enjoyed the professors, classmates, and material she has encountered in the course of pursuing her special major, in which she has combined courses from history, sociology, and English. A highlight included her independent study with Professor of History Tim Burke, in which Bledsoe and Burke researched and discussed Black American scientists throughout history.
“We talked about the implications of race for scientific discovery,” Bledsoe said. “Not just biological race and all of that nonsense, but asking, how has race shaped who does science? Who is science done for? Who has access to what science says and who defines it? That was really illuminating and wonderful.”
Bledsoe is currently working on her thesis, which has taken a nontraditional form. As Bledsoe’s interests in Black Studies lie at the intersection of science and historical and public representation (such as museums, libraries, monuments, archives, etc.) she is working to create documentary shorts and curating an exhibition focused on the historical experience of Black Americans working in science.
“I’ve been very, very satisfied just as a baseline but also pleasantly shocked by the support I’ve gotten,” Bledsoe said of her proposal to create a multimedia exhibition rather than writing a paper for her thesis. “Everyone has been like, ‘Great, this is a great idea,’ and then they challenge me to do it well. The relationships I’ve formed with the professors that have been mentoring me have been really positive, and that’s been nice.”
The challenge for Bledsoe has not been to find Black Studies courses but to find those that relate specifically to her interests. While some education courses and sociology/anthropology courses, for instance, address some aspects of the intersection of race, representation, and science, Bledsoe has not found the exact perspective she is looking for in these. Thus, she has had to broaden and make more abstract her interests, taking classes which she must work to make applicable to her major.
“It has been difficult to find classes, but the classes that I’ve chosen I think have been really compelling and interesting, even if they aren’t directly related to Black Americans in science,” Bledsoe said.
A large part of Bledsoe’s decision to declare a special major came from her desire to develop the specialized skills and knowledge she needs in order to achieve her eventual goals of curating a museum, where she hopes to engage with the creation of official memory and access the ways in which people interact with historical information.
In the immediate future, Bledsoe hopes to work at the new Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“They’re really shaping what history is going to be like in that museum,” she explained.
Overall, Bledsoe has no regrets about declaring Black Studies as her major. She believes that her experience of creating her own academic program has taught her advocate for herself and thinking through exactly what she wants to study.
“I’ve had to really concentrate on what it is that I wanted, and I’ve had to articulate that, and I think that’s going to be really useful going forward,” Bledsoe said. “You have to have a plan — you can’t just be like, ‘I want a special major,’ and then fuck around.”
As a special major, Bledsoe feels she has learned to continually push for the chance to focus on her academic interests, rather than allowing professors to steer her in a different direction.
“You have to be willing to say, in the face of professors, ‘These are great ideas, and I respect what you’re saying, but this is what I want to do,’” Bledsoe said.
As Bledsoe explained, much of the advantage of declaring a special major can come from the chance to do innovative interdisciplinary work and to focus more narrowly on exactly the courses and subjects one is interested in rather than fulfilling a more general established set of major requirements.
Danny Hirschel-Burns ’14, for instance, found that the biggest benefit of designing his own major in political conflict was the opportunity to write an interdisciplinary thesis on nonviolent strategies civilians could use to survive mass atrocities.
Hirschel-Burns knew going into Swarthmore that he was interested in international politics and mass violence.
“A big part of it is that my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, so I’ve been hearing stories about those things as long as I can remember,” Hirschel-Burns said.
At the college, Hirschel-Burns took a class on nonviolent resistance which sparked his interest in social movements, and after taking classes with Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Shervin Malakzadeh, he became intrigued by broader forms of contentious politics. Additionally, Hirschel-Burns’ desire to think more deeply about violence developed through his membership in Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, a student-led movement to end mass atrocities, he said.
Hirschel-Burns’ decision to design a major in political conflict, which was housed in the Peace and Conflict Studies department and also incorporated classes from the Political Science and History departments, was motivated by his desire to take the exact set of classes he was interested in and ultimately apply them to his thesis.
“I knew my interests didn’t lie squarely in history,” Hirschel-Burns said.
Hirschel-Burns added that there were many classes he could have included in his major that he chose not to in the end because of the college’s 12-course limit on credits towards a major.
The interdisciplinary focus of his special major gave Hirschel-Burns the flexibility to write the thesis he had been thinking about since his sophomore year, he said.
“I think it would have been challenging to write that thesis as a history major, because of the lack of archival sources,” Hirschel-Burns said. “Even political science probably would have wanted a smaller scope and more rigid structure.”
The content of Hirschel-Burns’ thesis has guided his post-graduation experience as well. He spent one year working at a human rights foundation, conducting research on theories of atrocity prevention, which he said he would not have done without the familiarity with extant literature that came out of his thesis work. Now, Hirschel-Burns is applying to PhD programs in political science to study violence, governance, and state-building.
“Basically, my thesis was a scholarly jumping-off point to what I imagine I’ll be doing for the rest of my life,” Hirschel-Burns said.
As Lo, Bledsoe, and Hirschel-Burns all stated, special majors can provide students with a more tightly focused and more applicable knowledge for future academic and professional work. Eliana Cohen ’17, a special major in organizational behavior, hopes to pursue a career in business in the future, yet has been able to follow her more liberal arts-focused interests in psychology and sociology thanks to her special major .
Cohen has always wanted to understand how people are motivated, and how these individual motivations affect one’s ability to work together to create organizations, infrastructures, and societies, she said.
“When I came to college, I kept thinking about the question of motivation and its implications and soon found that it was not only central to what I was learning in my psych courses — I originally intended to become a psych major — but also to what I was learning in virtually all of my other courses and to my social interaction as well,” Cohen explained.
Cohen noted that Andrew Ward, professor of psychology at the college, was instrumental in her decision to pursue her special major. During her freshman spring, Cohen took Ward’s class in social psychology, which furthered her interest in organizational behavior.
“I became absolutely fascinated with studying how people work in groups since essentially everything we do as humans involves some sort of collaborative effort,” Cohen said. She also linked her interest in organizational behavior to the small size and emphasis on collaborative learning that are both characteristic of the college, contexts which she feels led her to see the role of individual motivations in shaping people’s ability and desire to work together.
Following her desire to gear her education towards what appeared to be a broad field, Cohen decided to declare a special major which would be housed in the psychology department but would incorporate courses from the economics and sociology departments as well.
Cohen felt that the college provided her with a great deal of resources in order to design her own educational path. The process involved meeting with a special major advisor; researching organizational behavior majors at other colleges and universities; choosing 12 courses that would meet the major requirement, including a course in organizational psychology not offered at Swarthmore but available at University College London, where Cohen is currently abroad; reaching out to a student who had majored in behavioral economics a few years previously and could give her advice on her proposed curriculum; and meeting with the chairs of the psychology, economics, and sociology departments along with the registrar, before her major could be approved.
At present, Cohen is deep in thought about her senior comprehensive exercise, a research project in which she hopes to examine the effect of individual personalities of group members on the efficacy of on-campus organizations and to see if her findings are supported by existing literature.
Despite enthusiastic professors and what seems like a solid amount of institutional support for students who wish to design special majors, there can be difficulties as well. Lo, for example, has occasionally felt isolated as a special major doing her thesis research. Unlike students working on their theses as groups within departments, who might be writing about vastly different subjects but all overlap in some way thanks to sharing a major, Lo relies solely on half hour meetings twice a month with her advisor for feedback on her ideas.
“I don’t have a lot of contact with other people doing similar things,” she said.
For all of this, though, Lo feels that the college possesses unique attributes, such as its size, the liberal arts environment, and the availability of close relationships with motivated professors, all of which enable students whose interests do not fit within established programs of study to pursue their ideal special majors. At another school, Lo added, she might have used her interest in video games to generate paper topics rather than designed an entire major around it.
“This isn’t something every institution has,” Lo said.