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This week, sophomores in the A.B. program will declare their majors. As students enter their new academic departments, it is important to reflect on the process of choosing a major and consider the experiences students will have within their new departments. To improve the pre-declaration process, the Board recommends that departments improve materials provided to freshmen and sophomores and their faculty advisors and that they host departmental open houses in the fall, rather than the spring. The Board also recommends that all departments appoint student representatives or ambassadors to advise students currently or prospectively concentrating in a given department and introduce departmental listservs that can be accessed by concentrators. Finally, the Board encourages departments to increase consistency in both their prerequisite and core departmental courses to create a fairer and more uniform experience.
Choosing a major and selecting the necessary prerequisite courses for a prospective department can be confusing, especially for those deciding between several majors. In order to improve student access to the information necessary to make this important decision, the Board recommends that each department produce a one-page summary sheet that includes departmental prerequisites, core courses, and other departmental requirements. This summary page would be available to students through both departmental web pages and faculty advisors. It is particularly important that advisors have access to these, as many freshman and sophomore advisors are assigned to students considering concentrations outside their home departments and are thus are unfamiliar with the requirements. Though departments may feel hesitant to do this because their requirements could change, this would actually make such frequently-updated summary pages even more important, as they would reduce confusion regarding current requirements. This could even reduce work for departments and their representatives, as they would have fewer students contacting them directly for requirement clarifications.
Departmental open houses, with presentations regarding what declaring a major in a given department entails and reviewing prerequisite requirements, serve as similarly helpful resources to students in the major selection process. However, these are often held during sophomore spring in the weeks leading up to major declaration. Though these presentations discuss a great deal of useful information, students do not have enough time between open houses held in the spring and the major declaration period for these events to meaningfully aid decision-making. Additionally, if students learn they have not fulfilled departmental prerequisites, they currently do not have time to rectify this. Accordingly, the Board recommends that departments move their open houses to sophomore fall to give students more time to consider and use the presented information.
The need for departmental guidance does not end once students have declared their majors. Accordingly, the Board proposes that each department appoint student ambassadors. These students would be points of contact in the department for both current and prospective concentrators and have listed on the department’s website their area of interest within the department, completed departmental courses, and contact information. This would be helpful both to students considering concentrating in a department, and to students already in a department trying to determine which classes to take or how to schedule their courses around independent work. Some departments, such as the politics department, already have undergraduate committees to represent student interests in department meetings, which could be expanded to include the kind of ambassadors we are suggesting. Similarly, the Board proposes that each department create a listserv on which students can communicate with their fellow concentrators for matters such as getting advice prior to enrolling in a previously taught course. This would give students additional resources for their academic planning and could help foster a greater sense of interdepartmental community.
Additionally, students’ experience within their departments can be improved through changes to procedures used when planning departmental prerequisite and core courses. The Board urges departments to increase consistency in these courses through greater collaboration between professors across semesters regarding presentations, material presented, textbook selection, and weights assigned to assignments and exams. This would create a more uniform experience for all students in a department and could help improve course quality by allowing professors to refine a given curriculum across semesters, rather than building a fresh one each time.
The Board recognizes and commends the many resources already available to students during the major declaration process. However, we believe both the process of choosing a major and students’ experiences within their departments can be further improved in the form of creating departmental summary sheets, hosting open houses earlier, appointing student ambassadors, forming departmental listservs, and increasing uniformity in department courses. These improvements will provide more resources to simplify the process of choosing a major and increase available resources and quality of department experience for students after they declare.