Students design specialized courseload with contract major option

The College offers 37 majors, each of which is housed in a certain academic department with a set curriculum. There is, however, one lesser-known type of major that gives students the initiative to construct their own courses of study: the contract major. Guided by two professors, contract majors use topics and themes gathered from a variety of the departments offered at the College to dig deeper into a specific interest of theirs.

Lara Shore-Sheppard, who chairs the Committee on Educational Affairs (CEA) – the governing body that, among other things, oversees the contract major application process – said that the contract major speaks to unique interests students may discover during their time at the College.

“[The contract major] makes it possible for Williams students to major in something that they have a passion for that we do not necessarily offer but that is within the purview of the liberal arts,” she said.

To pursue a contract major, students must apply for approval from the contract major advisor, Amanda Turner, as well as the CEA, during their sophomore year. This initial statement of interest, which is due on Nov. 15, is followed by a finalized proposal in the spring.

Since the contract major is, in many ways, a culmination of a lifelong passion for students, the contract major experience – from applying to carrying it out in their junior and senior years – varies significantly. That being said, contract majors appreciate the program’s independent, student-driven and interdisciplinary approach that allows them to get to the heart of their particular area of interest.

Being able to contract major in performance studies (PS) was the primary reason why Sofia Smith ’18 decided to stay at the College, rather than transfer to the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, which offers PS as an established major.

Smith wanted to create a curriculum drawing from music, theater, women’s, gender and sexuality studies (WGSS), sociology, art and art history to explore performance in various areas. She focuses on performance as it relates to the self and its historical and cultural context, and focuses on “undoing the binary between theory and practice and using performance as an episteme.”

As a sophomore, Smith had a vague idea of what she wanted to study, with a desire to learn about storytelling and forms of the narrative. Uncertain about what to major in, Smith approached Amy Holzapfel, chair and associate professor of theater, who suggested she pursue PS.

As interested as she was in pursuing the contract major, Smith said she felt that applying for it required a lot of work, especially as a sophomore who was just being introduced to the world of PS.

“It was a lot to take on as an independent project,” Smith said.

Nevertheless, Smith said, pursuing the contract major was crucial to letting her get at the topics and burning questions that mattered most to her.

Becoming a contract major was important to Izi Torres ’19 for similar reasons. Frustrated with rigid pre-med track requirements, Torres was more interested in studying science while looking at the overarching question of best practices for patient-doctor interactions. Torres said she wanted a curriculum that would allow her to study science through the lens of technology studies, biomedical ethics and social issues tied to medicine – areas of study that she said weren’t satisfied by the established majors offered by the College.

Her major, critical health studies, concerns “trying to understand how medicine and health care are justified through science, and how science is set up as a structure.” Under the major, Torres examines areas of science – mostly health and medicine – through ethics, critical theory and theory of technology, among other methods, to also explore social issues related to health.

Max Harmon ’18.5, who is studying critical geography – which he described as a study of society through a critical social analysis with a spatial focus – said he is grateful for the contract major’s fluidity in allowing students to mold their studies over time and through different subjects.

“It was basically through the process of learning the things I wanted to learn and the way I wanted to be thinking that I think it was my professor who said, ‘What you’re writing about sounds very similar to this thing that exists in academia,’” Harmon said.

Torres described the process of getting her proposal approved as “long and exhausting.” Members of the CEA suggested that, instead of studying critical health studies, Torres take a combination of different pre-existing majors, which Torres didn’t feel would fully satisfy her specific interests.

“There was so much administrative pushback with nitty-gritty things,” Torres said. “[The application process was] confusing, frustrating and not that well-supported.” Smith said she also had issues of gaining validation for her interests during the application process.

Nevertheless, all three students said that what makes for a successful contract major is a lot of self-drive, determination and independence.

“It’s important to take a body of knowledge and use it to apply to further academic progression,” Torres said, speaking to the contract major’s nature of constant reflection and making connections between studies.

Harmon’s advice to prospective contract majors is to have great curiosity for the particular subject and the prospect of exploring that deeply through the contract major.

“Feel excited about the opportunity to have ownership and intentionality over the thing that you’re studying,” he said. “At least for me, I’ve been most excited by making connections between things. That’s always been an area of growth and excitement. It’s cool to have an academic experience that mirrors that.”

Regardless of what could be a difficult and challenging process for some, Torres says that students should consider the possibility of becoming a contract major if they have interest.

“A big lesson I’ve learned is to acknowledge that you are a smart human being and that the ideas you have are valid,” Torres said. “Whether other people think of them as valid does not negate the fact that you have these ideas and you should do something about it if you want to.”