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2013 Spring Issue 2 (April 19, 2013)

Making a Special Major

April 23, 2013
By Stuart Urback

Since it has been “major declaration season,” I thought I’d write on a similar topic: special majors. Getting a special major approved is a tough process. I know because I’ve been on both ends of it, as a student preparing to apply and as a member of ASC looking over petitions and determining which merited further processing. Two years ago I attempted to put together a special major in design. While it ultimately fell through, I learned a lot about the process that I would like to share.

The discipline of design is a growing field of through and practice which attempts to take visual thinking and apply it to a variety of problems. The focus is on creating products, processes, and systems that help create a more equitable society. The methodology of design is a process which focuses on research, ideation, prototyping, testing, feedback, and (most importantly) iteration. It follows a community of practice that is incredibly multi-disciplinary, involving fashion, graphics, games, engineering, and management.

The goal isn’t so much to develop visual ideas is it is to use a process to interpret, understand, and generate new knowledge in ways that are unavailable through other disciplines. Design was born out of a response to develop more humane technology, but it is expanding into a field of practice and knowledge generation.

While there are currently no other undergraduate degrees at liberal arts colleges there are a number of graduate degrees within multidisciplinary programs like the Design School at Stanford or the Entertainment and Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon.

But what would the classes in the major look like? (If you really, really hate economics, or the classes aren’t offered, you could probably substitute the economics portion with psychology, instead.)

Introductory Classes:
(ARTS) Introduction to Sculpture
(ARTS) Observation Drawing
(ECON) Introduction to Microeconomics

Intermediate Classes:
(MATH) Probability
(CS) Data Structures
(CS) Program Design
(ENGL/HIST/ANTH) 2 200-level Humanities Courses

Methodology Class:
(ECON) Experimental Economics or Behavioral Economics

Expert Classes:


(MATH)Topics and Probability and Statistics: Stochastic Processes or Topics in Probability
(HIST) History 395
(ARTS) 1 300 Level Art Course

The two introductory art courses are meant to help students learn to sketch and thinking visually while the economics course is to increase students’ understanding of human processes as being able to be understood through data sets and logic. The mid level classes focus on incorporating further logic practices with math and computer science while the humanities courses are included to help develop the ideas that these systems are being fundamentally created for humans and to increase human agency.

The methodologies course (either behavioral or experimental economics) allows for further practice in running experiments that manipulate human behavior through rules and systems. Finally, the 300 level courses are each present as a different pillar of design: statistical, visual, and humanistic thinking.

The goal of the comps would be to integrate these three types of reasoning into a unified process. The student would focus on an area of Carleton (or a problem with American society more broadly) and “redesign it.” They would conduct research, ideate, prototype, test, and iterate within the confines of a term. The goal would be towards creating a final product, process, or even company that would be presented to an audience as a potential solution to the selected problem. The student would have to defend their solution both based on the process they used but also based on the context they were employing their solution within. The student must not only argue whether or not their solution is “better” but also look how it fits, what are the costs and what it means as a shift in society.

For potential advisors, I don’t want to call out any specific professors, as that would be unfair. However, I will say that professors who are particularly interested in visualization, processes, and multidisciplinary ideas will probably be the most useful professors. This part can be the most challenging, especially since the major is so incredibly different. However, coming prepared with reasoning is important when proposing an idea to a potential advisor. Respect their time by coming prepared and being able to answer a fair number of their questions. I have made the mistake of not coming prepared before, not the most fun hour of my life.

The act of designing is not just a form of project management. It is a form of knowledge generation as well as knowledge application. By working through a design process, ways of seeing the world change, things like relationships between disciplines, ideas about theory and practice, and ways of re-imagining social contexts emerge that is not just technically deep, but also philosophically broad in the liberal arts tradition.

While most readers (if not all) readers will probably not use this article to develop their own special major, I hope I have at least shown that it is possible (though challenging) for significantly interdisciplinary majors to exist within Carleton’s current rules and regulations.

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