Scripps Reacts to Self-Designed Major Changes

by Megan Peterson, '15 Three weeks ago, a majority of Scripps College’s faculty voted in favor of measures that change the process for students wanting to self-design a major or minor, despite protest from a number of students and professors.

The changes, proposed last spring by the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC), made the petitioning process for creating self-designed programs much more difficult. For example, petitioning students must now obtain signatures from each professor whose class will count for the major and from two professors willing to be thesis readers. Students with self-designed majors also no longer have the option to write honors theses.

Professor Rita Roberts, chair of the FEC last year, said that the changes were proposed to respond “to long-standing faculty concerns about the coherence and rigor of the self-design major” and “to make it more consistent with the requirements of other college majors.”

Though these measures garnered broad FEC and faculty support, some students and professors are frustrated by the changes.

“In theory [the changes] are good ideas,” said Meg Roy ’14, a creative writing major focusing in fiction. “In practice, it’s absolutely absurd.”

Creative writing minor Anjali Gupta ’15 concurs: “The proposed changes seem, on the surface, as though they were intended to clarify the process for self-designing a major. However, in practice, these changes would make it almost impossible for students to self-design,” she said. “The changes create unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles for anyone looking to self-design a major.”

Gupta, along with a number of other students seeking to self-design majors and minors, created an online petition last spring protesting the changes. Over 400 students, alumnae, and parents signed.

Echoing the concerns outlined in the petition, Gupta expressed that the provision requiring students to include thesis readers in their proposal “does not take into the account that the focus of the major could change,” since students usually petition as sophomores but don’t write their thesis until senior year.

Gupta also called the provision that would require students to get individual professors’ signatures in order to include their class in their petition “impractical.”

“It’s often difficult to know what will be offered next semester, let alone in the next few years,” she said. “Moreover, students who self-design work closely with their advisor to ensure the requirements are met, and it should not be up to the professors to decide if their class counts towards the major or not.”

Students also feel they were excluded from a process that will govern their futures at Scripps. “It is a shame the committee has decided to disregard student wishes regarding self-designed majors, especially after the flow of support from the student body, parents, and alumnae for last spring's petition,” said Elisabeth Pfeiffer ’15, a creative writing major. “I think that students should have been more included in the meetings that led to these decisions.”

Scripps Associated Students (SAS) President Marta Bean ’14 signed last year’s petition, but now, knowing more about the changes, feels that they are for the best. “All Scripps students should be able to tailor their education to what they are truly passionate in,” she said, “and these new measures also help this work logistically.” She added that the new changes “ensure that even those who don't chose a conventional major and decide to design their own are not missing out on the rigorous academics that makes Scripps students ready to handle all types of challenges upon graduation.”

However, many writing majors and minors, a group that composes the majority of petitions to the Committee of Academic Review (CAR) each year, feel strongly that this is not the case.

Roy, a senior whose self-designed major was approved two years ago, said that, because so many writing students petition each year, there was a strong precedent already set for her when she decided to apply. “I took [a senior’s] petition and used it as a template: similar class lists, similar application,” she said. “It was very easy [and] approved almost immediately.”

The ease with which it was approved, though, could be deceiving. Just like any other ‘official’ major, Roy’s creative writing major has a number of classes to fulfill breadth of study and focus requirements. Roy also said that she’s often writing 5-7 pages a week (or more) for her senior thesis, which she describes as a magical realism novel for young women—much more, she says, than many of her classmates.

“To say the least, I would not be where I am today without my major,” said Annie Dreshfield ’13, who self-designed a major in Creative Writing for Contemporary Media, hoping to launch a career writing for the technology industry. “Throughout my time at Scripps, my major turned heads, made employers take a second look at my resume, got me internships, and eventually lead me to my full-time job where I am today,” continued Dreshfield. “I was hand-picked by my CEO for the Communications team at a start-up because of my writing background, in a role that is the perfect blend of Public Relations, Marketing, and Communications. …I don't think I would have been considered for this position at all if I had majored in English or Fiction Writing,” she said.

Writing Professor Kimberly Drake oversees all of those writing petitions, and she feels that, for writing students, the changes make self-designing a major incredibly onerous. She pointed out, in particular, that students often have to submit writing samples to take certain writing courses, so the provision requiring students to obtain signatures from faculty beforehand may prove difficult.

Additionally, according to Drake, “factors other than whether the course fits the major (such as the individual faculty member’s personal views of the proposed major, of the student’s college, or of the bureaucracy involved in the proposal) will influence her/his decision about signing the form, and the student will now be caught up in those political tensions.

“This does not seem to me to be an appropriate use of anyone’s time or energy, nor does it seem to be in the spirit of Scripps College,” said Drake.

Among those interviewed, however, there seemed to be varying definitions of what was in the “spirit” of Scripps College.

Roy said that there were many reasons why she chose to attend Scripps, but, since she intended to major in creative writing from the beginning, sought information from Scripps regarding her plan. She ultimately chose Scripps “because I always knew [self-designing] was a possibility. “I’ve never held the illusion that Scripps was a perfect school,” she said. “But I still think I made the right choice.”

Pfeiffer, for whom the option to self-design a writing major was a big part of her decision to attend Scripps, felt otherwise. “These changes will certainly make Scripps look unattractive to prospective students, as one of their biggest selling points was the ability and easiness of designing one's own major,” said Pfeiffer. She pointed to several recent Scripps publications, including its “30 under 30” article spotlighting alumnae, which featured several former students who had self-designed majors in their fields.

“One of the things that attracted me to Scripps so much was the option to self-design—to have an interdisciplinary, not cookie-cutter education,” said one student, who preferred not to be named because CAR is still reviewing her petition. “My hope is that that continues to be true.”

Despite some students’ perceptions prior to attending Scripps, Laura Stratton, Scripps’ director of admission, said that self-designed majors are not something actively advertised by the admissions office. “We do get occasional questions about the options while we are traveling or conducting information sessions,” she said. “When I am asked about self-designing a major, I advise a prospective student that it is an option at Scripps.”

But what does this all mean?

Roy recalls when she first heard about the changes—she was abroad and received a panicked message from a friend on campus. “I was skeptical then and am skeptical now about whether students can do anything about it,” she said. “This disappoints me more than I want it to.”

Stephanie Huang ’16, a poetry minor, concurred. “It saddens me that it is getting more and more difficult to design your own major or minor, especially because interdisciplinary studies are at the heart of Scripps’ education ideals,” said Huang. Though she never planned on pursuing a poetry minor prior to attending Scripps, she conceded that her classmates may have felt differently. “I think a lot of Scripps students partly come to Scripps because they are attracted by Scripps’ interdisciplinary studies,” she said. “While I know that the new implementations ensure that the self-designed major/minor is thoroughly planned out, I hope it doesn’t discourage students from pursuing what they truly want to do.”

The student who preferred not to be mentioned said she’s not sure what she’ll do if CAR doesn’t approve her petition. She’s running out of time to declare (and complete) a different major and graduate on time. “What confuses me is, why are they limiting us?” she said. “[Self-designing] is not detrimental to the college, is it?”