How to Lose Pre-Reg Priority and Alienate Professors: Maggie Feldman-Piltch ’14 on Being a University Major

After recently declaring a lucrative double major in Impractical Humanities Discipline and Apparently Useless Social Science According to Those Debates on the ACB, this intellectually curious blogger began to wonder what motivates students to pursue a field of study that requires actual work. Unlike my lazy ass, Theories of Ethics in Capitalism major Maggie Feldman-Piltch ’14 is one of ten current students who designed their own academic departments under Wesleyan’s University Major program.

Like many of its peer institutions, Wesleyan attracts prospective students with the opportunity to “work independently at integrating the core skills and background knowledge necessary to realize a coherent intellectual objective.” In other words, University majors do whateva they want.

If transcending the restrictive disciplinary boundaries imposed by academia’s arbitrary departmental segmentation appeals to you, you should probably read this interview. If you responded to the question “Are you Wesleyan?” with a resounding “I don’t know, maybe, this recruiting strategy is kind of cheesy,” you’re probably right. If you’re wondering why, I can assure you that #thisiswhy.

TL;DR: One out of 25 faculty members agree that inventing your own major is a good idea.

So you designed a major in Theories of Ethics in Capitalism. How did you come up with that?

Officially or unofficially?

Just personally. What got you interested?

Okay, I’m really interested in fashion, but I’m also interested in people not being exploited and the earth being around when I’m 50. The fact that people see this idea of vulture capitalism as, like, the natural state of the market system is just total bullshit to me. So I was like, “Fuck this! I’m doing my own major to prove everyone else wrong,” which is, like, the most Wesleyan thing you can do with your time.

Did you know before coming to Wesleyan that you wanted to create your own major?

Yes, sort of. People always say that they really talk up the University major during tours as something that everyone does—which is not true—but that actually was not my experience. So I was like, “I’m gonna go to Wesleyan; I’m gonna do music and SOC.” But I really don’t like SOC that much. And it just sort of happened. I actually made a conscious effort to be in a department, and it just didn’t work out. At all.

So your major doesn’t incorporate sociology?

It does. It’s econ, philosophy, and SOC, but it’s really like economic sociology. And up until this year, we didn’t have a professor on campus for reals that did economic SOC. I took a really awesome class last spring with Clayton Childress, who’s now at Princeton. Sad. So—I don’t know if this can go on Wesleying—

You can say things off the record if you want.

I mean, it doesn’t really bother me. It’s not news to anyone. The SOC department has really strong feelings about the Economics department. And the Economics department isn’t really paying enough attention to have any feelings about the SOC department. So I wasn’t actually able to get a Sociology professor to agree to be my SOC advisor, largely because I was doing economics. Most University majors have three advisors. I technically only have two, because the committee saw the point where my major was completely valid, and I’d put a lot of work into it, and there were professors behind me. There was just some…childishness from a particular department.

What did you have to do to get the major approved?

I talked to 24 professors before I found my first advisor.

Damn.

They would try to convince me of how my major could fit into their department. A lot of them just heard “University major” and were, like, slamming the door in my face. They didn’t want anything to do with it. Which is really interesting to me, cause it seems like such a natural thing at Wesleyan. But a senior at the time, Rachel Levinson [’12], told me that I should go meet Professor Finkelstein and see what he had to say. So I just walked into his office hours and he agreed to be my advisor and got me in touch with all these other professors that were interested in helping me. I’m doing a tutorial with him, and he’s my thesis advisor. I think once you find the first advisor, more professors take you seriously.

Then you submit a proposal. Your proposal needs to, in 500 words or less, explain what your major is, why you can’t do it in another department, what your thesis is gonna be, and all of your classes. It’s really, really, really hard. I got a conditional approval because I needed to add more humanities classes, and they also told me that my title didn’t match my proposal. Professor Finkelstein told me to add “Theories” to my title, and it worked. So I don’t know what that means.

[Editor’s note: The University major application instructions restrict proposals to 500-750 words in length. Proposal examples featured on Wesleyan’s website exceed those restrictions.]

So you have to write a thesis to be a University major?

You have to do something. And you need to decide what you’re going to do when you’re a sophomore, which is really scary. You can do a senior project, but I think that really lends itself more to students that are doing something with art or dance or music. But a lot of people do art or dance-slash-science-based University theses.

Oh, yeah?

Yeah. I mean, there’s only, like, six of us, so there’s really not a huge amount of variety that can happen.

Do you know what the other majors are?

Andy Ribner [‘14] is doing learning theory. Andrew Trexler [‘14] is doing something about the formation of nation states in Europe. There’s a kid named Nicholas [Myerberg ’14] who’s doing, like, postmodernism. Sierra Livious [‘14] is doing neuro-something and dance, and Olivia Grant [‘14] is doing sort of like what the College of the Moving Image is going to be, except we don’t have that yet so she’s making it. And Rebecca Frederic [‘14] is doing biological anthropology.

Do you guys interact a lot as University majors?

Sort of. We have lunch with Dean Melendez, our department chair, in the Daniel Family Commons once a semester. I’m close friends with two people that are also University majors—Olivia and Sierra—and Andy Ribner helped me a lot with my proposal. I mean, there are so few of us, and there are times when you really feel alone. I sent a panicked e-mail to everyone last night about my thesis. We don’t interact a lot, but it’s nice to know you’re not totally alone.

What’s your thesis about?

That’s a really good question. It’s about theories of ethics in capitalism.

Good!

I know, right? Actually, I was looking at my proposal last night and realized that my major has changed so much in the last year, which I didn’t see happening at all. I think it will look at corporate social responsibility as a replacement for regulation and, like, if that could ever really work. I don’t know, maybe. I’m gonna talk to Professor Finkelstein about it tomorrow.

How did it change?

I don’t know, really, because I took the classes I was supposed to take. I think how I felt changed, but more than that, as you spend more time with it, the way you approach the same question is really different. So the way that I set up my proposal is two main questions that I wanted to answer, and then a couple smaller questions to help me get at the big ones. If I had the chance to rewrite it, I would definitely reword those questions.

Now that WesMaps 2013-2014 is out, do you already have an idea of what kind of courses you’re gonna be taking?

University majors need to make this list of classes that they’re going to try to take—core and elective—realizing that you’re not gonna get into most of them because, even though at one point you will be a senior, you don’t have seniority or priority or anything. Ever. Because Wesmaps is a computer system, and you don’t have a department.

That sucks.

Right. Which is why a lot of us declare in that major and hold on to it for as long as we can. I also took a lot of credits for a really long time. So I could graduate right now, but I really don’t want to. Next year, I’m just gonna write my thesis and kind of do whatever makes me happy. Maybe nap some.

Naps are a great idea!

I’m really about napping. Napping and Buzzfeed is sort of where my life is at right now. Napping and Buzzfeed and soy-free Nutella.

That’s definitely relevant.

It definitely is! Everything that I ever write to Wesleying has something to do with Nutella or Buzzfeed!

Has your major influenced your post-Wesleyan plans?

Yeah. My major influences my relationships with other people, which obviously will influence your post-Wesleyan life. People have accused me of being too high maintenance or having my priorities in the wrong place when they find out that I care a lot about clothing, which is silly to me. It’s not so much that I care about what it looks like; it’s that I care about where it came from. I would rather spend a lot of money on something and know that it was gonna hold up for a long time, but more importantly know that the people who were involved in making it and the materials that went into it were done sustainably and it was ethical from start to finish. I really want to work in the fashion industry or on the business side of it after Wes. It’s kind of a toss-up between business school and law school. In a perfect world, I would go to business school, but, um, I haven’t taken precalc yet.

Not worth it.

I know, right? So I imagine that taking the GMAT would be really difficult. I think it would be hard to get through the day-to-day trials of being a University major if there wasn’t some bigger thing in it for me. Because it’s really tedious, and it’s really stressful, and it can be really isolating sometimes. I think everyone’s University major is really indicative of what they want to spend the rest of their life doing, or at least thinking about.

Any advice for prospective University majors?

Okay, I actually thought about this. The biggest thing is: if you care about how it’s gonna be, it’s not for you. What you want to learn about has to be so much a part of who you are that you would do anything to learn about it. You have to really believe in yourself and the validity of your own thoughts, and if you need someone else to validate them, it’s not worth it. If everyone starts thinking that they can do it, it’s gonna get watered down. But if that makes total sense to you, get in touch with other University majors, and I’m sure all of us would be happy to look over your proposal or help you talk to professors.

Is there anything you think Wesleyan could improve about the program?

Honestly, I think the fact that it’s not really a program is what makes it so special, because you really really need to want it. They can’t really make it a program because we’re all doing something different. Looking back, I understand why so many professors were really hostile to the idea of a University major and I’m grateful for that, because it made me really sure of what I wanted. It would be nice if they could give us a little more money so maybe we could have our lunches in an air-conditioned space when we can’t go to the DFC. But other than that, it’s fine, it’s great, it’s kind of sad, it’s like wandering around in a barren forest, but you sign up for that.

Looking back, would you declare a University major again?

Oh yeah, all day every day for sure. Ask me that in six months.

2 thoughts on “How to Lose Pre-Reg Priority and Alienate Professors: Maggie Feldman-Piltch ’14 on Being a University Major

  1. Pingback: Opera & Oratorio Ensemble Presents: Death, Demise, Damnation | Wesleying

  2. ashley williams

    hey- as a previous university major (phil/neuro/CS) i can say that the best way to deal with the lack of seniority and priority is to talk to professors. just say exactly what the deal is. by senior year, you’ll be taking classes where professors have a lot of power in determining their class makeup and they can just give you a spot. if you’re intellectually curious, assertive, and a bit proactive (which as a UNIV major you better be!) it’s a non-issue to be missing these built in defaults that allow other students to get away with not talking to profs.

    after talking to 25 profs looking for an advisor it might seem like a terrible suggestion, but remember that having a smart awesome person take their seminar is totally in their best interest, while having to personally scaffold someone’s unscaffolded college experience that likely spans disciplines they have no experience in is less of a sure bet for them (and it’s in everybody’s best interest that you get the RIGHT person, not just anyone, e.g. looking for the right apt is gonna take more failures than finding a good sandwich).

    if talking to profs doesn’t help you, then whatever problems you/your depts are having likely run deeper than an “oversight” in a computer system.

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