Ethnography Project: Major Declaration

June 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

In a few of my interviews I was able to delve into the topic of major declaration—an important deadline during sophomore year. Beginning my project, I had identified this process as a distinguishing transition for second year students. At Duke, the deadline to declare your major is during your 4th semester—traditionally, March of the spring semester of your sophomore year.

According to Virginia N. Gordon, author of “Academic Advising: Helping Sophomores Succeed,”

Choosing an academic direction is one of the most important decisions students make while in college. Students’ choice of major will lead them down a path that incorporates contacts with faculty and peers, exposure to academic content, and the type and depth of academic experiences that might affect later decisions involving the identification of career alternatives or post-college education. (84)

While I was intrigued by the emphasis placed on the choice of an academic pathway, it sounded unmistakably “advisory,” and I wanted to find out more about how students perceive the decision.

One student I spoke to, who just completed her sophomore year described a sudden shift from feeling that there was plenty of time to take a variety of classes and try everything out to feeling that there was not time before the looming decision deadline. She responded by making strategic class selections in order to narrow down between the handful of departments she was considering, taking one class from each department the first semester of her sophomore year in order to facilitate picking one. When asked how she felt she had handled the process in hindsight, she commented that the advice she had received from upperclassmen had been an important resource.

But what about students who aren’t so strategic? Or don’t have the same relationships with upperclassmen? Jenni Davidson, program coordinator of Sophomore Year Experience (SYE) touched on major declaration as one of the primary transitions faced by the students she serves. Picking a career, Jenni observed, feels like a big burden for most students. In an attempt to help alleviate this burden, SYE plans several events for sophomores such as major discussion panels and faculty career luncheons prior to the March deadline. Jenni added that students can put a lot of pressure on each other as well; students who are unsure or undecided sometimes perceive a stigma about not knowing and feel as though they are facing the question “why not?”

Considering my own experiences and many of my acquaintances experiences, I wondered whether this decision making process was simply a rite of passage for college students, because those students who showed up for move-in on the first day with a major picked out often reconsidered. But an enlightening conversation with a junior Mechanical Engineering student reminded me that I couldn’t take the differences between Pratt and Trinity for granted. When I posed my first question about choosing a major in our interview, she seemed to brush it off saying that other than writing it down on paper, nothing else seemed to change. She continued of fulfill some general requirements during her first semester, and then progressed with the course sequence for mechanical engineers during her second semester.

I was amazed during my first look at the Pratt advising website after our meeting ended, by the extent to which course selections were predetermined and how clearly outlined they were for engineering students. The only hint that students may have a decision to make is the course EGR10, an optional half credit course recommended for first semester students who are unsure of what type of engineering they are interested in studying.





§ One Response to Ethnography Project: Major Declaration

  • ethnolust says:

    This is a nice way to approach the topic of diversity within the sophomore experience, especially as it pertains to the institutional factors involved. It may be interesting in the final project to think about how M. Foucault’s work might apply in this context. I definitely see a connection between the university’s diverse workings (the different colleges, for instance), programs like SYE, and different categories of student subjectivities.

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