Self-Designed Education

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My first full-time job in university administration was working as an adviser at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. As the name implies, students at Gallatin designed their own major (called a “concentration” in Gallatin parlance), drawing not only on Gallatin’s curriculum of interdisciplinary seminars (like the ones I taught titled “Whiteness” and “Popular Culture and the Struggle for Black Civil Rights”), writing seminars, and community learning courses, but also on courses from NYU’s other divisions, as well as experiential learning courses (internships), independent studies, and study abroad. While students could struggle with such curricular freedom, many students thrived in such an environment. The very best students designed concentrations that were theoretically sophisticated – combining the best of the Great Books tradition with innovative contemporary scholarship – but also applicable to the world of work beyond Washington Square Park.

Even for these students it could be hard to discern the concentration from just the transcript, which was often a jumble of oddly titled courses, generic references to internships and independent studies, and a degree: Bachelor of Arts in Individualized Study. Where the concentration came alive was in the student’s telling. From the outset, Gallatin students became adept at answering the “so what are you majoring in?” question from fellow students and skeptical family members, often replying with pithy titles like “Happiness” and “Hip Hop and Politics”. When they ventured out and started interviewing for internships, even the most esoteric concentrations suddenly became imminently practical, with students able to demonstrate the hard and soft skills they had gained through their studies. By the time they sat for their Concentration – a two hour conversation with three faculty members that constituted the capstone requirement for the degree – most students had mastered the ability to put theory to practice; to think across disciplines, cultures, and historical time periods; and to articulate the relevance of their studies to the career field to which they aspired.

My Gallatin cohort (those who entered Gallatin in Fall 2005) graduated into the worst of the Great Recession. Under-employed, burdened by student loan debt, and still unable to afford housing in New York City, they were the face of the millennial generation. At the same time, their self-designed education – much derided by peers, family members, a mocking press and skeptical policy makers – served them remarkably well during their 20s. They were able to pivot more quickly than most, were able to learn new skills and information outside of the context of formal education, and were among the first to stake their claim to the new economic opportunities that emerged in the social media era.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Gallatin students these days as I work to support a new generation of college students graduating into a deep recession. Many of the clear career paths have suddenly closed, and new graduates will need to become adept at telling their story, framing (and reframing) their experience, and pivoting to new opportunities and possibilities. In addition to the Re(Designing) Your Summer Internship activity I’ve already posted, I’m hoping to post several other Life Design activities that will help students transition to this new reality. A lot of my thinking in this regard will no doubt be shaped by my early work at Gallatin.

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