While beginning a new school year and meeting new people, I am confronted by the same question: What’s your major?
Usually when I tell people that I plan to major in American Studies, they ask, what is American Studies, and what do you plan to do with it? I explain that American Studies is the broad study of everything American—history, literature, government, art, etc. Then I tell them that I am not yet sure about what I plan to do with a degree in American Studies. They generally seem disappointed with the latter part of my answer. Many think that I should already have my academic goals figured out by my sophomore year because many students nowadays do. Most of my parents’ generation will agree that students now come into college more focused and accomplished than they did twenty or thirty years ago. We are more set upon graduating in four years and more reluctant to change majors, partly because of financial pressures. Some of us are rebelling against our parents who changed majors multiple times. Others of us are still stuck with the high school mindset in which we believe that to get ahead we must choose our classes and activities years in advance.
At Stanford and many other colleges, the typical student’s study plan goes somewhat like this: freshman year, fulfill General Education Requirements; sophomore year, continue with required coursework and run for a student leadership position; junior year, study abroad—something 50% of Stanford juniors choose to do; senior year, take standardized tests and apply to graduate school or for a job. Students usually don’t stray too far from this track, and if they do, they have numerous advisors to refocus them. Here, freshmen receive a faculty advisor, professional advisor, and peer mentor. When students formally declare a major, they get a major advisor. If they decide to write an honors thesis, they get a research/writing advisor. This is in addition to the residential assistants, health counselors, and academic tutors who are available in all dorms. While advisors can impart wisdom, they can also prevent students from “living and learning.” Advisors tell their advisees which easy classes to take to fulfill requirements and which more difficult classes to avoid. In essence, they do their best to ensure that students never encounter failure—or challenges. Many discourage experimenting with coursework in favor of the tried-and-true paths to success. But isn’t college about experimenting?
Unfortunately, most math and science students cannot experiment with their coursework because of their copious major requirements. If they intend on graduating in four years, they cannot afford to “waste” time by taking interesting classes outside of their major that do not fulfill GERs. Students in the humanities have a little more leeway.
Because advisors often instruct students to fulfill their GERs with classes that are relevant to their major, students no longer even use their GERs to explore different subjects. This situation would not be as tragic if many students actually knew what it felt like to experiment and explore. As early as elementary school, students are now told that they need to be passionate about a single subject. Once students begin to develop an interest or aptitude in an area, they are both tracked and trapped. Parents and counselors carefully choose which classes and camps will best enhance their college resumes. Students spend their summers attending academic camps and doing research in a single area. They then write about their experiences on their college applications. As college freshmen, they receive an advisor in their declared field of interest who encourages them to single-mindedly “pursue their passion.” Once students have taken several required courses in their major, which can translate into tens of thousands of dollars, they don’t want to backtrack by changing their majors. Moreover, they don’t want to start anew their sophomore or junior years by taking introductory classes with freshmen.
I can relate. When I told my mom that I disliked one of my American Studies classes, she suggested that I consider changing my major. But I revolted at her suggestion because I had already taken four of the required American Studies courses. Changing majors mid-stream would mean that I had “wasted” my first year. Furthermore, I thought that “cutting and running” was gutless. Then I realized that I had fallen into the same trap most driven college students do—of staying the course.