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Choosing a path

In the midst of a monsoon of midterms and papers, harried Trinity sophomores might have seen an email from the Academic Advising Center on Tuesday reminding them that in two short weeks they would be required to submit major declarations. The email in question contained a checklist of eight or nine mandatory steps: “Create your ‘what if’ report,” “Write a brief reflection,” “Complete your advising survey,” etc. To a student who had just finished writing a paper analyzing themes of idolatry in “Paradise Lost” in an advanced English seminar or who had finally finished coding a complicated algorithm for a computer science class, the email, the included checklist and the entire major process probably seemed more like busy work than anything—something to blow off and push through. Today, we argue that without substantial revision, the major declaration process will remain just that.

The ostensible point of our major declaration process, especially the 250-word essay, is to induce self-reflection among students and provide them with a chance to introduce themselves to future departments. But it seems rather unlikely that writing 250 words will either force someone to evaluate their major choice or create a student statement that academic departments will find useful.

The entire major declaration process could become much more useful if it actually fulfilled its current goals. Major declaration should be a time of soul-searching by students: a period where they have to reflect on why they have chosen the course of study they have. That reflective soul-searching might be prompted by a longer required statement that advisers must approve, or it might be prompted by an application that is simply more robust than our current bland one. Major declaration should also truly be a way for students to introduce themselves to departments and become acquainted with their compositions. That might mean that instead of forcing students to write a few generic sentences, the major declaration process asks that they complete detailed questionnaires tailored by individual academic departments, forcing them to explore the topography of the field they have chosen to study and respond to prompts that are interesting to departments.

On the subject of departments, if the major declaration process is to be altered, the role of major advisers also ought to be revisited. Currently, the process for assigning major advisers seems to differ by department, but in many large ones it is more or less aleatory. If our second proposed revision were to be implemented, that could change. While it might be difficult for departments to assign students to academically aligned professors with nothing more than 250 empty words, were departments to have access to student responses to their own detailed questions, they could purposefully match students to faculty advisors who shared their academic interests. Doing so would not only help create strong student-faculty relations, but might inspire students to follow in the footsteps of their close faculty advisors and choose to pursue further intellectual and academic exploration.

The bottom line with Duke’s current major declaration process for Trinity students is that it is uninspired. It lies in a strange middle zone between an application that pushes students to make a concerted effort to apply to majors and an application that consists of a checkbox and a signature. Unfortunately, it carries the weaknesses of both and the strengths of neither. It is time to change that.

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