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Whats a CIS major?

Sophomore year, I found myself resenting yet again the course requirements for my chosen major. Never mind that I had already switched majors four or five times, sometimes without even officially declaring my intent, because I didn’t want to take one required class or another. There I was, staring at the English department web page and thinking, I have to take two more 200-level literature courses? Why would I want to study “Literature before 1800” when I could be learning about ecology or environmental anthropology or creative writing?

Don’t misunderstand me, I have nothing against literature, even old, classic literature. I love tackling one of those huge, famous-but-never-read novels; diving into an 800-page Tolstoy masterpiece is often my idea of a good time. However, spending a whole semester studying only pre-1800 literature – and then spending several more semesters studying various other kinds of literature in order to complete the English major – struck me as confining. I wanted to study English AND environmental studies AND philosophy AND … so many things.

My fear of commitment to a major wasn’t just indecision, it was a desire to think about issues that interest me from many different angles. When I mentioned this conundrum to Professor of History Jim Farrell, he started talking about the Center for Integrative Studies CIS. As I pondered my problem, the CIS and its individual major option started to sound like just the thing for me. I went down to their office in Tomson Hall to learn more.

By letting students put together an individual course of study, the CIS pushes them to think about how all the pieces of an academic career connect. Students select a list of courses and write a proposal detailing the reason for including each course as well as their overall rationale for the major. This proposal is in-depth and requires considerable reflection on what a student hopes to achieve during four years at St. Olaf.

If all this introspection sounds like it would be fruitless at the moment, be patient. Most CIS majors don’t submit their proposals until sophomore or junior year. If you think you might not fit into a traditional major, just keep the possibility in the back of your mind.

In the meantime, I think that all Oles, even those who will never set foot in the CIS, should take time to reflect in this way on their academics. Instead of blindly following a program for a particular major, think about what you want to get out of each class as it connects to the other themes you have been studying. What do you want to have learned when you graduate? Professors will always articulate “course goals” on the syllabus, but I doubt one would object if you came in with your own questions as well.