April 13, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 14

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    College Curriculum Committee discusses concentrations

    By Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    The College Curriculum Committee will organize both formal and informal focus groups during the next several quarters to hear from students about their experiences of choosing and completing a concentration, said Lorna Straus at a recent retreat sponsored by the College Curriculum Committee and the Dean of the College.

    “We want to hear from students. How did they find out about their concentrations? How do they develop their communities of fellow concentrators?” said Straus, Professor in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division and Organismal Biology & Anatomy and Chair of the College Curriculum Committee, which presented the retreat on the College’s Concentration Programs.

    Three College students who attended the retreat, fourth-year Ruth Welte and third-years Niels Bradshaw and Darren Tow, provided student perspectives, describing their concentrations to more than 150 faculty members.

    Tow chose a double major, studying economics and East Asian languages and civilizations for balance.

    “In Singapore, where I come from, there is a stronger emphasis on professional degrees, which explains why the scholars from Singapore in the College nearly exclusively study economics, which is the closest to that,” he said. “But my interest in studying Mandarin and the East Asian region led me to choose a second concentration to complement the quantitative work I am immersed in for my economics concentration.”

    By contrast, Bradshaw, a biology concentrator, said he studies whatever he loves without feeling pressure to meet additional requirements, and Welte, an English and comparative literature concentrator, recently chose a double major when she realized it allowed her to get credit for her Spanish coursework.

    Discussions at the retreat focused on such fundamental programming questions as Why do colleges have concentrations? What are the goals of Chicago’s concentrations? How, when and why do students choose a concentration? What role do concentrations play after students graduate?

    “During the past few years, we looked at the general education for undergraduates,” said John Boyer, Dean of the College and the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in History. “Next, we want to approach our concentrations programs, examining the relationship between the general-education and specialized components of a student’s education.”

    While faculty may agree that concentrations fulfill their namesake––at least as a more focused pursuit of knowledge than general-education coursework––their departmental approach to concentrations can vary as much as the nearly 50 majors themselves.

    According to Amy Dru Stanley, Associate Professor in History, a history concentrator’s overarching goal is to learn methods of analysis, given that causality looms large in a historian’s approach to his or her work. Sidney Nagel, the Louis Block Professor in Physics and Master of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division, said physical scientists, by contrast, generally see concentrations as sequential sets of courses that ultimately prepare students for graduate school.

    As different as concentrations may be, Richard Strier, Professor in English, member of the College Curriculum Committee and deliverer of the retreat’s concluding remarks, derived a number of common factors or points of consideration for further discussions. Some of those factors included defining what an undergraduate education means and to what degree a concentration can provide specialized knowledge; identifying the time and resources faculty can give to undergraduate education; supporting a community for undergraduates in their departments; discovering what role majors vs. minors or certificates may play in a degree program; and examining the proliferation of small-concentration programs.

    Boyer said he expects that over the next year, the College Curriculum Committee and the Committee of the College Council, with input from faculty and students, will continue to evaluate concentrations to determine what they are, what they could be and how they can be improved.