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ISSUE 118 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 4/15/2005

I can't believe it's not a major!

By Veronica McFadden
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 15, 2005

Tucked away on the sixth floor of Holland Hall – a flight of stairs above the building's traditional department offices and classrooms – a place of extreme academic possibility awaits. It’s called the Center for Integrative Studies (CIS), an official academic department which helps St. Olaf students synthesize their personal and academic interests into official individual majors recognized by the college.

In the spirit of the defunct paracollege, the CIS supports student-centered learning and liberates students from the traditional limits of the academic catalog. “You don’t have to fit into some box and have your arms sticking out,” said Eva Nelson ‘06, whose individual major is entitled lyric theater.

“Many students have the idea that majors are items on a supermarket shelf,” CIS Director David Booth said. “More accurately, a major should be the subject that’s the focus of your energies and your curiosity.”

Akin to interdisciplinary programs such as Asian or women’s studies, the CIS encourages students to integrate their learning by supporting diverse learning styles and experiential methods of inquiry. Students who choose to work with the CIS, however, do not follow a set curriculum outlined by the department. They must define their own original subject, complete a comprehensive major proposal with the assistance of the CIS faculty and defend it before a faculty review committee before the college will accept it as an individual major.

Booth admires the “real intellectual challenge” in defining the subject of a major. “Subjects can seem like furniture in the universe to students,” Booth said. The CIS demands that students consider their personal investment in study. “Everything you do here, you do on purpose,” Booth said. The process is rigorous, but ultimately worthwhile, as CIS majors will attest.

“If I could describe the CIS experience in one word, it’d be ‘engagement,’” Melina Klimek ‘05 said. “You motivate yourself, engage your lifestyle and take hold of your education.”

Klimek’s individual major, interpretive studies in sustainable development, combines courses in environmental studies and sociology/anthropology with her extra-curricular experiences in the St. Olaf Sustainability Task Force and Environmental Coalition. Her integrated work allows her to study concepts of place-based sustainability within the Northfield community and conceive of the meaning of “sustainability.” For Klimek, the CIS major is a process of finding out who she is and what she values.

“You dive in and find out what interests you and what motivates you,“ Klimek said. “You get to ask, ‘Who do I want to be when [this major] is done?’”

Some arrive at the CIS because they are restless with existing department subjects. “I saw the need for this major at this school as a college of the church involved in social activism,” said Elizabeth Henke ‘05, who majors in peace and peacemaking.

For some students, the CIS major changed the way they viewed St. Olaf. “CIS kept me at St. Olaf,” Kristina Boyer ‘05 said. Boyer majors in mass media and American culture and considered transferring to a different college to earn a communications degree, but was reluctant to leave St. Olaf’s strong community. The CIS allowed her to develop a major which lays a theoretical groundwork for graduate studies in examining the impact of mass media on American values.

“This major has allowed me to create, formalize and implement an idea,” Boyer said. “And this is only the beginning.”

Other students are inspired by elements of existing disciplines and want to pursue a more integrative path. “I wasn’t happy just being a theatre major,” Christie Gibbons ‘05 said. The CIS allowed Gibbons to integrate theology, Russian studies and environmental studies into her individual major, nature theology. For her integrative senior project, Gibbons is directing and producing an original street puppet show that she wrote last semester while translating Russian folklore into English.

“There is an interesting intermingling between nature and spirituality [in Russian tales]” Gibbons said. “The Earth is very alive. Religions in America seem drained of this idea. Puppet theater is an innovative and fun way of reminding people, ‘Hey, look, we’re all connected here!’”

For Justin Johnson ‘05, the complexity of his interests brought him to the CIS door. In his first environmental studies class “every question had to be answered with a different discipline at its core,” Johnson said. “So I declared a philosophy major. But this wasn’t enough because it didn’t answer all the questions, so I declared an economics major. Then I tried to add a sociology major, which would make four majors, which you can’t do, so I decided to combine them.”

In working with the CIS, Johnson was able to design environmental discourse analysis, a major that explores the meaning of his questions: “How do humans conceive of the environment? How does that inform how we manage it? How does language shape our reality?”

Like other CIS students, Johnson complements his individual major with a traditional major, economics, because it helps him to articulate and clarify the objectives within his integrative major.

Usually by the spring of their junior year, CIS students appear before a faculty review committee to defend their major proposal. Each proposal must include a four-year academic plan, an abstract overview, major rationale and personal background statement, as well as an annotated list of required courses and experiential components of the major. The task is formidable, but “everyone is friendly, helpful and kind,” said Amanda Swanson ‘07, a creative writing for text and screen major.

“There is pride in meeting goals you set for yourself,” Gibbons said. “But it doesn’t just happen. You have to upkeep a web portfolio and meet with your advisor on a regular basis, instead of just meeting for them to sign something.”

Students are remarkably self-disciplined as they create required web portfolios of their work and implement their own curriculums. “I’ve had about six independent studies,” Johnson said.

Boyer finds it empowering to create her own academic experience: “There is freedom, responsibility and gratification in seeing your ideas come together into a complete major.”

This spring, the college will graduate a total of 15 individualized majors through the CIS. You can check out their web portfolios at, where the connections and ideas of students come together.

“The college is loaded with opportunities,” Booth said of the CIS role in the life of the college. The purpose of the CIS is to “find them, organize them and engage you with them.”

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