April 9, 2020 | Feature
changing my major
or concentration, i should say
“Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.”
As I mixed the two dyes, medium charcoal and intense black, with some milky hair developer, I looked at myself in the mirror. Two dark brown eyes stared back at me, framed by chin-length purple hair.
I took a breath and lifted the gray paste toward my head with a cheap plastic brush. As I applied the dye, familiar lyrics floated through the air:
Are you really here?
Joan, Joan, Joan, Joan, Joan
This year, I experimented with cutting, bleaching, and dyeing my hair; I sported golden, silver, pink, blue, and purple in the span of just a few months. My hair is only one example of my indecisiveness and affinity for change. Applying to colleges, I selected different majors for each school; I had no idea what I wanted to study. When I interviewed her for this piece, Brown Academic Advising Dean Peggy Chang advised incoming students to “be open to not knowing,” even though “that can be hard, or even downright scary.”
College—and Brown in particular—seemed like an ideal place to explore my evolving interests. The idea of Brown’s signature Open Curriculum was first introduced by two undergraduates, Elliot Maxwell ’68 and Ira Magaziner ’69, as part of a Group Independent Study Project (GISP). Their new curriculum would eliminate general education requirements, introduce a credit/no credit grading option, and encourage maximum academic flexibility. When I arrived at Brown, I was both excited and scared to experience this openness firsthand. Now, reflecting on my arrival reminds me of Dean Chang’s further advice to “be confident that you will know, and be confident in what you do already know.”
During my first semester at Brown, I tried to counterbalance my uncertainty with intuition and pragmatism. Biology was my favorite class in high school, so I cautiously dubbed myself a pre-medical student. Never too early to think ahead, I decided, kicking off freshman fall with a slew of pre-med advice panels and introductory courses in psychology, chemistry, and calculus. My first-year advisor told me without breaking his beaming smile, “You should take something fun!”
Halfway through the semester, and a series of Taylor-series-induced panic attacks later, I realized the pre-med track just wasn’t for me. Reluctantly, I shed my brief dreams of donning a white coat and walking purposefully through fluorescent hospital halls. Feeling drawn to my psychology and fiction writing courses, I contemplated a double concentration in psychology and literary arts instead. That year, choosing a concentration made me feel like a child choosing what they want to be when they grow up: Anything seemed possible, and no answer was stupid or irrelevant. But as I entered my second year at Brown last fall, doubt began creeping up on me: What do I actually want to do with my life? Will I be able to get a job? Should I just major in economics?
I’ve never lost control due to overwhelming lust
But I must say I’m changing my major to Joan
With that, a period of anxious, rapid cycling through endless thought-loops began, cycles that would encircle me for the rest of my sophomore year. When I encountered a friend studying something interesting, like environmental science, I would think, I could do that, too. Plus, I do really care about the environment… Inevitably, I’d lead myself down a rabbit hole, scouring course offerings and planning my hypothetical schedule. Imagining myself studying another concentration felt like trying on a brand new outfit at the store. I could picture my environmental science self wearing khaki pants with extra pockets, bending down to take soil samples.
All day, every day, we are presented with choices. Some are meaningful, like choosing a major; many are more trivial, like what to eat for breakfast or what kind of jam to buy at the supermarket. In a famous 2000 study, experimenters offered samples of jam in an upscale grocery store. One day, shoppers encountered a display table containing 24 gourmet jam samples; on a different day, the table had just six varieties. Customers who sampled the jams were given a $1 jam coupon. While the larger selection attracted more people, those who encountered the smaller array were 10 times more likely to make a purchase. The fields of psychology and business had previously assumed that the more choices people have, the better off they are. This study marked the beginning of a new train of thought: In many cases, more choices might actually be worse.
I continued “trying on” concentrations long after deciding against environmental science. I considered East Asian studies after taking a Chinese class for heritage speakers, literary arts after writing a piece I felt proud of about the postmodern condition, economics after actually understanding microeconomics, and psychology after I found myself hired as a Teaching Assistant for Abnormal Psychology this semester. For a few weeks last fall, I rotated which major I introduced myself as. I remember switching my hypothetical concentration from literary arts to computer science in a matter of days.
The Harvard Business Review article “More Isn’t Always Better” argues that excessive choice can lead to “choice paralysis” and reduce people’s satisfaction with their decisions. Having more choices requires investing increased time and effort into a decision—which may in turn contribute to heightened expectations, anxiety, and a sense of regret.
Choosing one option means letting go of all the others, and if you couldn’t already tell, I am a “maximizer”: one of the two basic decision-making types described in this Wall Street Journal article. Maximizers take their time making decisions and weigh a wide range of options before carefully selecting the “best” one; “satisficers” choose more quickly by finding an option that fulfills their minimum criteria. Researchers found that satisficers tend to be happier with their decisions because they spend less time deliberating—and tend to feel less regret.
Will you stay here with me for the rest of the semester?
As sophomore year progressed, the task of choosing a concentration felt increasingly daunting. Last October, I scrolled through LinkedIn, reading descriptions of one impressive-sounding internship after another, before laying my head down and groaning. I hardly knew what I was doing or wanted to do with my studies, much less what kind of future or career I was interested in. It seemed like everyone else had it all figured out. But Ron Foreman, a CareerLAB advisor, told me everyone else felt that way too. “The job market is a lot larger than you think it is,” he reassured me.
I’m writing a thesis on Joan
It’s a cutting edge field and my mind is blown
At Brown, we have nearly 80 concentrations to choose from, as well as the option of creating our own. Committing to just one or even two felt like settling on a delicious pastry from Pastiche—leaving you staring through the glass, admiring all the tiramisu and glazed cake slices that you could’ve savored instead. My multifacetedness led to indecision.
In The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz likens modern liberal arts colleges to a “kind of intellectual shopping mall,” where students are allowed, even encouraged, to shop around until they find and “purchase” whatever bundles of knowledge they like. During Brown’s shopping period this January, I hurried from packed lecture halls to cramped seminar rooms in a frenzy. The more I shopped, the more drained I felt—but as the days passed, the dust settled, and the courses I found myself returning to just felt right. More and more, I felt drawn to the versatility and global implications of economics, though I never fully eliminated the possibility of something different.
An economics concentration alone didn’t push me to explore my creative interests in writing and visual arts, so I considered double concentrating—along with approximately 20 percent of Brown students. I weighed the potential advantage of being recognized for a second concentration against the constraints of completing twice the requirements. Did I need an additional concentration to accomplish my goals? Dean Chang’s advice: “It’s important to remember that the concentration is just one part of your whole education. The concentration plus all of the other classes that you took, plus the research that you did, the relationships that you formed with professors even outside of your concentration, and all the things that you did outside of the classroom—that is your Brown education.”
And my heart feels complete
Come February, I started browsing the Independent Concentrations (IC) website. ICs must cover an area of study not offered through a standard Brown concentration and require students to take initiative in designing their own curricula with the support of at least one faculty sponsor. Could an IC help me maximize the Open Curriculum? I began drafting a proposal for multimedia storytelling—a concentration that would explore the future of storytelling in our increasingly technological world, weaving together my interdisciplinary interests in writing, visual arts, computer science, and psychology. According to Dean Chang, the number of students completing their own concentration varies from year to year, with 31 in the Class of 2020 and just 17 in the Class of 2019—about 1 percent of that class year’s student body.
I’ll go to school forever
I’ll take out a dementedly huge high interest loan
‘Cause I’m changing my major to Joan
“Changing My Major” is featured in Fun Home, the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist, adapted from Alison Bechdel’s bestselling graphic novel memoir of the same name. The musical explores Bechdel’s life, dysfunctional family, and discovery of her sexuality through three “Alisons,” each a different age. This song is sung by college-aged Alison following her first sexual encounter with a woman—after which she resolves to change her major to the woman, Joan.
The song helps remind me of something easy to forget: My major (or concentration) isn’t the be-all and end-all, not even close. As I make my way through these bizarre final weeks of my sophomore year, I’ve had time to reflect on Dean Chang’s advice and what’s important to me: the home I have created at Brown, the invaluable friendships and relationships I’ve built, and the formative experiences I’ve had here—all of which matter just as much as whatever concentration I choose. Without the continued support of my closest friends and professors, I wouldn’t even be writing this article. My soon-to-be-advisor Professor Kuo assured me that my interests in creative writing and economics aren’t as disparate as I had thought. Having such wide-ranging interests can make choices like what to study especially challenging, but with an abundance of choices comes an abundance of people to turn to—friends, family or faculty—who are here for me no matter what I decide.
So, what will my major be? As of now, I plan to declare my concentration in economics, keep writing, and propose an Independent Concentration in multimedia storytelling…but you should probably ask me again in a few months.