Taking the road less traveled...it's a thing!

The Day of Judgment has come. Weep ye College undergrads for major declaration. For those deciding now how to spend a good chunk of their remaining years at Columbia, or for those reminiscing on that major they declared long ago and now regret (or have not really even nearly kind of sort of completed and are now super worried about), one half-question, half-wish comes up at this time of year: Can’t I just major in Undeclared? Bwog’s Scholastic Angst Bureau Chief Mark Hay holds the answers.

And the answer is yes, in a way. You can major in Undeclared.

“The reason for this,” says Columbia College Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis, “is because the College came late to the major business as a result of our robust core curriculum.” Acknowledging the work the College demands of students towards the core, and bowing towards the spirit of that educational cornerstone, Columbia wishes to allow students to pursue what Yatrakis calls “a true liberal arts degree,” to explore classes of interest. But nodding towards the rest of the world as well, the College still wishes students to pursue a level of specialization in their undergraduate degrees.

So you can major in Undeclared. But you still have to pick a concentration—Columbia’s compromise with the world of specialization and the world of the core. A concentration, as far as requirements are concerned, sits somewhere between a major and a minor.

It says something then that concentrations exist, by all indications, as a tool to enable broad studies, but instead many Columbians choose to pack together all of their interests by declaring one, two, or three majors and/or concentrations.

For those not taken in by any major, or even the relaxed requirements of a concentration, remember that you can create your own “independent major/concentration.” But the process is not an easy one.

Every year for the past 25 years that the program has existed in its current form, between 25 and 50 students approach the Committee on Instruction to propose a new major. Many of them recall hearing on a tour that a student once “declared war”—one War Studies major was constructed in 2000—and no doubt now wish to construct an equally catchy, quirky major. But the CoI only approves majors that serve interests existing departments cannot fulfill. And it’s harder to make the case for that major with the increase in interdisciplinary programs in recent years.

Even for completely novel ideas, the CoI will reject a major application if it is infeasible. (“E.g. if a student wished to construct an independent major in say, pharmacy studies,” says Yatrakis, “this would be rejected because it was not feasible.”) And those ideas that do pass muster still require a letter of approval from a professor, a faculty advisor, and a pristine academic record on the student’s behalf. Once created the major cannot be amended without review by the CoI.

Some years six students, maximum, manage to meet the requirements, some years none. In the past 15 years (as far back as the records go), only 46 independent majors/concentrations have been declared (3 more were declared but not carried to fruition). And more often than not, the majors declared are just mimics of those created by students in the past. Only 23 distinct majors have been invented, and six of these majors have been co-opted by the College, turned into regular majors, special concentrations, and/or special tracks.*

For the students with the nerve and the persistence, though, independent majors may be an escape value (for those without, a soothing fantasy) for major declaration. Follow the silly little asterisks to a full list of all the independent majors/concentrations declared in the last 15 years.** They may inspire you, expand your horizons, or at the very least give you a good reason to hold off on making that all-important decision for just another minute, please, as you consider what are essentially Columbia’s secret majors.

* These mainstreamed independent majors include American Studies, Asian American Studies, Linguistics, Mathematics and Computer Science, Sustainable Development, and the Track in Yiddish Studies.

** Independent Major/Concentration Name: Number of Declarations (Year)

American Studies: 2 (Both 1995, became a regular major/concentration in 1999)
Art and Religion: 1 (1998)
Asian American Studies: 1 (2007, became a regular major/concentration in 2008)
Comparative Philosophy: 1 (1999)
Dramatic Literature: 1 (1996)
Economics-Environmental Sciences: 1 (1998)
Education Studies: 1 (2000)
Ethnomusicology: 1 (2005 [a concentration])
Historical Sociology: 1 (2008)
History and Philosophy of Science: 2 (1995, 2002)
History of Science: 1 (1995)
Linguistics: 18 (1996 [a concentration], 1998 [3], 2000 [1], 2002 [1], 2003 [a concentration], 2004 [a concentration], 2008 [1], 2009 [4], 2010 [5], became a special concentration in 2005)
Mathematics and Computer Science: 1 (2003, became a regular major/concentration in 2004)
Medical Ethics: 1 (2002)
Music Science: 1 (2008)
Neuroscience and Philosophy: 1 (2009)
Philosophy of Science: 4 (1995, 1996, 1999, 2002)
Physics and Philosophy of Science: 1 (1996)
Religion and Philosophy: 1 (1999)
Sustainable Development: 1 (2009, became a regular major/concentration in 2010)
War Studies: 1 (2000)
Writing and Contemporary Literature: 1 (1999)
Yiddish Studies: 2 (2003, became a Track in the German major/concentration in 2004)