Sophomore Slump
By Shannon McKenna '12 and Elaine Teng '12
Ah, the perils of sophomore year. After the freedom of freshman year, the reality sets in. The registrar knows who you are. Every so often that email appears in your over-crowded mailbox ominously titled “Major Declaration.” That’s when the panicking starts.

For those of your fortunate few, who somehow have everything figured out: stop reading. For everyone else, you’re not alone. There are so many questions without answers: what do I major in? Will I study abroad? If so, where? Am I writing a thesis? What are comps? What do I even like? What am I doing with my life? And despite the College’s network of deans, professors, counselors and advisors, as that April 15 study abroad deadline looms closer and closer, you still can’t help but feel lost.

Freshmen, beware. When the College tells you you can take anything, broaden your horizons — go for that science class — be careful. The saddest thing that can happen your sophomore year is that you pick your major depending on which department you’ve taken the most classes in. Another pitfall is simply choosing a major because it’s easier, that it only requires eight classes and no thesis rather than one that requires 10 classes and comps. But as sophomores undergoing the pain we understand that it is hard to pick exactly one or two subjects you could potentially dedicate your life to. The College doesn’t seem to recognize that by encouraging exploration, they also run the risk of directionless second semester sophomores who end up settling because they don’t know what else to do. Or, perhaps they found a department they loved too late to realistically major in. Instead, students should try to start focusing in on their possible major sooner by narrowing their course selection and their interests to two or three disciplines by the fall of their sophomore year. For instance, if you are not planning on majoring in a science it is probably not wise to take two science courses the spring of your freshman year, even if you really want to get to know physics better. Physics can wait.

This has nothing to do with the open curriculum, but rather the advising system at the College. According to the Committee on Academic Priorities report, “Engagement with informed advisors, who can challenge and contextualize students’ intellectual choices, ought to be the foundation of a liberal education and especially at a school with an open curriculum.” While there are many informed, excellent advisors, there are equally many, particularly pre-major advisors, who fail to help students “contextualize” their education. Four years is a long time, but like you’ve heard countless times before, every class counts. It seems as though many pre-major advisors concern themselves with one semester or two semesters at a time instead of looking at the big picture, which is ultimately finding a major. They may casually ask students about these distant entities, including theses, majors and study abroad, but they never force the indecisive student to actually seriously make a decision until the last minute, when the student himself panics. Rather, advisors should take a more aggressive approach earlier in the student’s academic career. Such as, an advisor should ask their advisee what they liked and disliked about each of their classes for the last semester before picking their classes for the next semester in order to help the student focus their interest into a potential major. For example, if a student likes both European history and European literature but cannot decide between history and English, an advisor might suggest European Studies. Although we are not advocating that freshmen advisors should encourage freshman to plan out their entire four years here after their first semester, we are instead advocating that advisors take more initiative in improving communication with their advisees.

Though we know that everything will pan out for better or worse, just as everyone keeps reassuring us that it’ll all be okay, that doesn’t help us in what feels like a time of confusion and despair. We’ll figure it out, but it would be great if we had some help earlier along the way. The open curriculum is one of the main reasons we came to Amherst, but there should be more guides, such as advisors, to help us focus and choose so that we don’t agonize and panic like many of us are now. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s still pretty dark here.

Issue 21, Submitted 2010-04-07 03:50:26