September 23, 2012

O-Issue 2012: Majors

The U of C offers 50 majors, 28 minors, and seemingly infinite combinations of concentrations to its coterie of knowledge-hungry undergrads. To be exact, that is 100 percent satiation for an academic appetite.

Technically speaking, choosing a major at the U of C is a very simple task. Most students do not have to declare their major (or any potential minors) until spring of third year. It usually entails simply submitting an online request and informing your College adviser. Of course, every major has its own rules and exceptions—certain ones have more stringent prerequisites that will need to be fulfilled before declaring; others require an application for admission. It is prudent to take a quick glance at what your potential majors require of you. A major may comprise only 12 courses or it may require 18—it varies greatly, and the numbers may even differ for two people in the same major, depending on the specified area of focus. Minors usually require about half as many credits.

On the personal, anxiety-ridden side of the matter, the University Web site brightly remarks, “With very few exceptions, the major will assume more importance to you than to the outside world.” Most students arrive at the University without a clue as to what their major will be, and of the lucky few who do, many change their minds. This sudden indecision where once there was a fervent desire to be a physics, philosophy, or English major may be brought on by a multitude of factors (the Core curriculum, bitterly cold weather, the pitfalls of organic chemistry, actual philosophy classes, to name a few) but it’s certainly nothing to worry about.

A favorite U of C pastime worth mentioning is the phenomenon of majoring in twos and threes. Every year many students decide to double major. The University’s official spiel on this tradition is that, professionally speaking, it usually does not make a difference, but it certainly can be helpful for one with conflicting or varied academic passions. The other option of course is to focus singularly and indulge one’s diverse interests with electives on the side. That being said, two distinct majors will often involve courses that overlap considerably, so it may be possible to double major and still have some electives to spare.

An even smaller collegiate clique opts to try their hands at the masochistic rigors of a triple major, and often find it to be a Sisyphean struggle. Still, we must imagine the triple-major to be happy.

The U of C has a smattering of unexpected and idiosyncratic majors as well. Fundamentals majors seek to answer one deceptively basic question (i.e. “How does one love?” or “What is desperation?”) by focusing intensely on a few chosen texts. These texts may be philosophical, sociological, religious, literary, historical, or scientific in nature. Mostly, though, they are literary. The required introductory course could cover many works of one author, or focus on a single book: for example Pale Fire, The Brothers Karamazov, Ulysses—most of which are read an excruciating (but theoretically rewarding) minimum of three times.

Law, Letters, and Society is also an interdisciplinary major and draws heavily from the political science, public policy, philosophy, and sociology departments, among others. All second years who have been admitted into the major are required to take an introductory class, “Legal Reasoning”, taught by famed professor and program director Dennis Hutchinson during the fall. Additionally, students must take two “Letters”, two “Society”, and six complementary courses at some point during their undergraduate experience. Both Fundamentals and Law, Letters, and Society require applications during spring quarter of your first year.

Next up, we have ISHum (Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities). Students in this program focus on the humanities, but allow their interests to wander relevantly elsewhere, and incorporate interests from other disciplines. Students who wish to major in ISHum should apply by the end of their second year, although rare exceptions are made for those applying at the beginning of their third.

Finally, there is a major with a winning name, and even more impressive interdisciplinary attitude: HIPS (History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences of Medicine). This major is pretty self-explanatory, and there isn’t anything quite like it in the country. In order to fulfill one’s academic requirements, all HIPSters must cultivate a foundational knowledge of the natural sciences, and then immerse themselves in such topics as the history of medicine, its social, psychological, philosophical ramifications, and so on.

Again, all this is just something to keep in the back of your head, not to drive you out of your mind. You’ve got at least three years in this place, so eat your heart out.