do it yourself

independent study options at brown

Like most students here at Brown, I was drawn to this school for its Open Curriculum, excited by the prospect of being in control of crafting an education fueled by my passions. Now well into my second semester, though I’ve sampled some unforgettable courses, it seems I’ve committed to blindly plowing forward in the course sequence of my intended concentration. Curious about what I might be missing, I had the opportunity this week to talk with Nicole Martinez ’18 and Sierra Edd ’18, the Independent Study Co-Coordinators at Brown’s Curricular Resource Center (CRC), who opened my eyes to what the Open Curriculum could truly offer.

Sierra and Nicole specialize in advising students about Group Independent Study Projects as well as Independent Study Projects, or (G)ISPs. These are courses that are designed by a student or group of students on any academic topic. Every aspect of the course, including the syllabus and evaluation, is designed by the students themselves, resulting in innovative course topics such as furniture construction or sitcom creation. All (G)ISPs require a faculty sponsor whose role is to help suggest resources and grade the progress of the work. A (G)ISP proceeds just as any other course through the semester, but the process harbors many additional discoveries and rewards.

(G)ISPs are a way for students to immerse themselves in a topic they love in the way they see fit. The topics they pursue are many times not originally part of the university’s curriculum, which often does not offer the freedom or depth of exploration these students would like. In a sense, a (G)ISP is the most daring way a student can showcase their individual interests.

“The Open Curriculum is very novel, you can explore anything, but sometimes in a class something is a bit off, or it won’t go in depth or in a specific context you want,” says Nicole.

For those interested in diverse topics, (G)ISPs are the perfect way to draw a connection between fields: “A lot of the (G)ISPs are interdisciplinary; students are concentrating in two departments and want to connect them,” says Sierra. Sierra’s own past GISP, “Indigenous Women’s Politics and Resistance,” reflected not only her interests but also current political events. “There was the #NODAPL movement going on at the time, and we actually went to North Dakota to study it.” This semester, Sierra is involved in a GISP on the Navajo language, just one of the many examples of an area of study that is not offered through a regular Brown course.

Recent (G)ISPs have embodied personal and expressive ways for students to immerse themselves in a topic. “This semester, there’s currently one called ‘Afro-Futurism,’ which is about African American identity in Sci-Fi and Fantasy/Speculative literature and how literature can heal, and there was even a field trip to see Black Panther,” says Nicole. Another course that especially stood out to her was “[an ISP] this student last semester did, which involved photography through an Electron Microscope. It was the definition of interdisciplinary. It used science tools to create and analyze art. I especially like seeing the project-centered ones, because that’s where you see the passion come out.”

Given the academic freedom (G)ISPs provide, why do more students not take advantage of these projects? Nicole recounts an excerpt of an old BDH article she once read at the CRC, which could not be more relevant today: “It was about this problem about students at the school not taking advantage enough of the open curriculum and going for more pre-professional paths. This was during the ’70s and ’80s, and it was the national mindset. I think we are still in that mindset now.”

For Nicole and many other students, especially for those on financial aid, there can be a sense of expectations that they need to live up to. “For me initially, I was planning to major in both Literary Arts and [Political Science] because I was very scared of being just Literary Arts.”

Another factor limiting (G)ISP participation could be the added pressure and work needed to design an entire course. (G)ISPs are rigorous, with the designed course expected to deliver 150-200 pages of reading a week and two exams.

In order to create an Independent Concentration (IC), the amount of work and revision needed is even higher. At the beginning of the process, the student must articulate the “Why,” “How,” or “What” of the planned concentration. Its academic potential, trajectory, and difference from existing concentrations must be thoroughly fleshed out in order to give the IC legitimacy for existing outside the Open Curriculum. Even after this thorough planning process, the workload of an IC is no less than a standard concentration and culminates in a required capstone project.

Nevertheless, the hard work and passion of previous generations of students have left their mark. Nicole emphasized how these projects are not just for the students creating them but also for those who come across similar paths and interests in later years: “It’s interesting to see how many ICs 20 years ago became mainstream concentrations like Literary Arts or Neuroscience. I think it really validates ICs more.” Looking at the IC database, which contains all past ICs for students to reference, is almost a pastime in itself. Concentrations like “Medical Humanities,” “Neuroeconomics,” “Happiness,” and “Deaf Studies,” to name just a fraction, proudly take their place as academic pursuits for students to come.

For incoming students interested in pursuing a (G)ISP, the CRC is the perfect launching point. “Definitely come to the CRC. I actually spoke to two prospective students yesterday who were planning to major in STEM but [are] also interested in (G)ISPs, which there’s tons of potential for. Definitely don’t hesitate to come and ask a lot of questions. We’re super happy to help.”

“Our purpose is to talk with students about their path and to demystify the Open Curriculum,” says Sierra.

After speaking with Sierra and Nicole, I had a better appreciation for the feeling that draws so many students to Brown that I could previously only articulate with buzz words. I think it is the same excitement that an artist or architect has before they undertake some grand new design. Perhaps one of the fullest ways to embody the spirit of the Open Curriculum is to go outside it. After all, to truly take your education into your own hands is a testament to the original purpose of the Open Curriculum. For students like Sierra and Nicole who pursue a (G)ISP, the reward lies not only in the topic they investigate, but in the very process itself:

“Whatever your final product ends up being, even after a stressful experience, at the end of the day you have a final product that came together after a unique journey…You put your time and energy into something you intrinsically find fulfilling.”