On Securing an Independent Study at Hampshire College

The following is based entirely upon my own observations and
experiences, and does not necessarily reflect the policies of the college or
the opinions of anyone employed thereby.

I should however state that, by the end of this semester, I will have
completed seven independent studies in my time at Hampshire. This is seven
more than many people get to take in all their years at this college. Three of
these studies I completed as a Division I student; two of these went towards
the satisfaction of my Div I distribution requirements. These facts, I propose,
give me sufficient authority with which to speak on the subject.

[EDIT: In the year since I wrote this piece, I have completed seven additional independent studies. As a Division III I anticipate completed four to seven more.]

The following, then, is a guide to securing independent studies at
Hampshire College. It focuses primarily on doing so with, or from, Hampshire
professors. First I shall discuss what an independent study is, and what is
required from it, from the point of view of the college. Then I shall give what
advice I can that might be helpful to the student, by analyzing the point of
view of a professor.

As to what is best for the student, I shall not begin to guess.

The purpose of independent studies at Hampshire College is to
facilitate student learning and student production that otherwise cannot be
accommodated by a class. This term “class” includes all courses taught at
Hampshire, or by any of the Five Colleges. A list can be found through The
Hub or the Five College web site.

To secure an independent study, one must simply fill out a form. To get
credit for your work, one must simply do what they have promised to do.
Independent study forms can be picked up during regular business hours
from Hampshire’s Department of Central Records, located on the first floor of
the Cole Science Center between the offices of Dean Weisler and President
Hexter. I believe their hours are 9.00 to 4.00, Monday through Thursday.

These forms must be filled out in pen, signed by the student, the
faculty member supervising them, and their academic advisor. Therefore the
student, in order to secure an independent study, must have one professor
who is willing to be their supervisor, and they must have the approval of
their advisor.

The job of a faculty advisor in this case is, first of all, to negotiate with
the student just what their independent study shall involve. Secondly they
must do whatever they have promised to do. Thirdly, if the student fulfills his
or her or whatever’s side of the bargain, they must write that student an
evaluation. The professor’s contribution may therefore be as much as many
hours of time per week, to as little as one hour of time per semester. I have
experienced both.

The form, signed and completed, must be passed in to Central Records
before the end of the add/drop period, which usually means that it must be
turned in during the first two weeks of a semester (or the first week of
JanTerm). The student’s enrollment in the course will appear on The Hub
sometime (any time from an hour to a month) later.

An independent study must, in most instances, be facilitated by a
faculty member at one of the Five Colleges. It may on occasion be facilitated
by a nonacademic, or an academic outside of the Consortium. This may
occur at the discretion of the student’s advisor; if they sign off on it, it is a
go. This guide shall generally focus itself on the securing of an independent
study from a Hampshire professor, which is the most common form of indie.
My suggestions in this guide may be applicable to other situations as well.

A course must be entered into The Hub to carry academic weight. All
entries into The Hub are of equal size, and therefore carry the same weight
academically. Therefore, all independent studies must be considered
equivalent in weight to a Hampshire or Five College class. This unit of
measurement can be compared to a single credit-hour in a college which
employs a credit-hour system. At Hampshire, no class can offer either more
or less than one credit (which is why some students can count a cooking
class as being equal in weight to the completion of a course on molecular
biology or advanced sociological theory).

To pass Hampshire College’s Division I program, a student is required
to complete eight courses or course-equivalents. Completion is determined
by the receipt of an evaluation; an evaluation is therefore equivalent to one
credit. In addition, five of these credits must be distributed evenly amongst
Hampshire’s 5 Schools (one credit in NS, CS, SS, IA, and HACU, respectively).
Most students take eight classes to satisfy this requirement, all at the 100-
level.

In order to count an independent study towards their Div I, the student
must simply make sure that both their advisor and the teacher facilitating
the study sign the independent study form. This is required for any
independent study to be entered into The Hub.

In order for a student to count a course towards their Div I distribution
requirements, the facilitator of their study must be a member of the school
from which they wish to receive a credit. Only a HACU professor, for example, can
facilitate an independent study that will satisfy the HACU Div I req. The
student must also make sure that they check the “100-level” box on the
independent study form.

To pass Hampshire’s Div II program, a student is required to receive
twelve credits from the completion of course of course-equivalents. They
must also fulfill their contractual requirements as negotiated with their
committee chair or chairs. Most students take sixteen classes (four per
semester) at the 200-level or the equivalent course difficulty at one of the
other Colleges. Some “concentrations,” such as Theater or Film/Video, have
additional special requirements.

In order to count an independent study towards their Div II, the student
must simply make sure that both their advisor and the teacher facilitating
the study sign the independent study form, and that the completion of the
course is in accordance with obligations outlined in the student’s Div II
contract. The student should most likely check the “200-level” box on the
independent study form.

To pass Hampshire’s Div III program requires a student to complete a
Div III project, as negotiated by that student with their committee. The
student must also complete two higher learning activities, one per semester.
Such an activity can be a course or course-equivalent of any sort, as long as
it is approved by the student’s advisor as being worthy. Most students take
two classes at the 300-level or its equivalent at one of the other Colleges.

In order to count an independent study towards their Div III, the
student must simply make sure that both their advisor and the teacher
facilitating the study sign the independent study form, and that the
completion of the course is in accordance with obligations outlined in the
student’s Div III contract. The student should most likely check the “300-
level” box on the independent study form.

Therefore, all a student must do is fill out a form, get it signed, pass it
in, and then complete the obligations that they have agreed upon with their
professor. If they do so, an evaluation should be entered into the student’s
records by their supervising professor. It will be viewable on The Hub and be
made part of the student’s transcript. It will then be, for all academic
purposes, as if the student had completed a regular class. I’ve done it three
times, and I’m still here.

What follows, now, is an evaluation of the particulars of the process,
along with suggestions as to how they ought best to be compensated for
during a search for an indie.

Firstly, a student must know what they wish to study or to produce.
Otherwise they cannot go about trying to secure an indie in which to study it.
They must have a fair knowledge of what they want to do, and at least a general idea
about how they want to do it. This I will call the standard of Prefatory Definition.

Projects can include anything on which you can get a professor to sign
off. This ranges from reading to writing to teaching to preaching to, using
the famous example of the movie PCU, playing Gameboy. I have taken
independent studies that required no output at all – no papers, no projects,
just some reading – and I have completed a study wherein I wrote over 200
pages, including a 130-page dissertation, all while having weekly meetings
with a professor. For the record, these latter demands on his time and
attentions made him very unhappy; he has since made fun of me in public on
more than one occasion.

Before a student goes to talk to a professor, they should be able to
write a syllabus for themselves which includes their reasons behind creating
the study, the manner in which they shall prosecute it, and the way in which
success in their study might be evaluated. This can usually be as simple as a
one-page course description, though it is helpful to have included a
breakdown of the student’s proposed work schedule based upon the number
of weeks in the year, and a description of the student’s final project.. It must
be stressed that the student should be prepared to negotiate the specifics of
this document, as shall be discussed later.

The student must then make sure that their independent study shall
require them to learn and to produce at least as much as would be required
of them in a regular Hampshire class of the equivalent level. Otherwise the
course cannot be deemed worth one credit, and as there is no fractional
credit system at Hampshire, the course cannot be begun. Thus a common
independent study would (for a Div I student) involve readings, short
analyses of primary research, and a mid-length final paper (~10 pages); for a
Div II student, a series of smaller essays (~5p) and a final larger essay
(~25p); and for a Div III student, depending on the size of their Div III project
and the amount that the indie is meant to be integrated into it, anywhere
from less than that required of a Div I to much more than that required of a
Div II. It can be more, it can be less, or a student’s work can be incomparable
to these standards; yet a student must be able to convince a professor of its
course equivalency, or they will not get the chance to perform their study.
This I will call the standard of Evaluatory Equivalency.

As stated before, an independent study is meant to facilitate that
which a class cannot. It must therefore meet the standard of what I will call
Exceptional Opportunity. Otherwise, when you pitch it to a professor, they
shall simply tell you to go take a class. If there is a class offered which would
offer the student precisely what they want, the professor would be right in
telling the student to take it. Otherwise they would be asking for special treatment that they did not need, denying the
professor’s attention from people who need it more and deserve it better.

Therefore a student, in making their pitch, must prove that the work
they wish to do cannot be done in any classes currently available to them.
They must look at every course in the catalog and select those that seem to
be near their desires. They must scrutinize these classes to make sure that
what they wish to study cannot be studied in any of them, or the project they
wish to complete cannot be undertaken within their constraints.

This assessment might very well require that the student contact a
number of professors, to determine the precise contents of an upcoming
class, and to assess their fitness for it. A student can eMail a professor, but
many professors do not return eMails and many that do shall do so with
inconvenient notions of punctuality. A student may try the telephone, and
meeting with mixed results. However, best results shall always be had in a
person-to-person meeting, which can be scheduled either by dropping by the
professor’s office with datebook in hand, or by signing up on the professor’s
door for a slot in their scheduled office hours.

A student should be wary, however, as a professor will almost always
see a student who seeks special assignments for themselves as a challenge.
A professor will often claim that one of their classes, or a class taught by one
of their peers, is perfect for the student, and will be even better for that
student than an independent study. The professor may very well be right.
They might also be mistaken to the point of self-delusion. The student must
be able to say with a reasonable degree of confidence that the professor, in
making such a statement, is wrong. Otherwise they had best follow the
professor’s advice, until such time as it proves clearly to be mistaken (or
else, of course, proves perfectly accurate).

The manner in which a student contacts professors regarding their
classes is the same manner that a student should use to find, if they do not
know already, the professor best suited to supervise them in an independent
study. The biographies of the Hampshire faculty members, as well as
descriptions of the classes they have taught and shall soon teach, can all be
found online. This ought to give a fairly good understanding of what are the
professor’s interests and specializations, especially if a student doesn’t know
enough other students to ask around. For a professor of chemistry will most
likely not be competent to supervise an independent study in biology, or will,
at least, suggest that a biologist is more qualified. This I would call the
standard of Supervisory Applicability.

Many professors will not wish to consider a student for an independent
study unless that student has already completed one of their classes, to that
professor’s satisfaction. This because taking a professor’s class allows that
professor see what a student needs, and what a student can be expected to
do. The difficulty with this is that a student in a situation inappropriate for
them will hardly make a good showing. If a student wishes to avoid falling
into this trap, they must move quickly and efficiently.

A student who wishes to avoid taking a class as a prerequisite for
getting an independent study must demonstrate in other ways their fitness
and deservingness for such a study. They must meet with the professor and
sell themselves and their project. A student may have as few as one or two
office hour meetings, of 15 to 30 minutes each, to demonstrate this. Perhaps
they shall have to catch the professor on the way to the bathroom. Stranger
things have happened.

The student must show that they are enthusiastic for the opportunity,
but not for its alternatives; that they are able to work well, but shall still
benefit from supervision and assistance; that they have a good background
in the subject, but require more knowledge and expertise; that they are self-
motivated, insofar as they have done good work before, either in this area or
in other academic areas; and finally, that the work they are doing is of
interest to the professor.

This latter is most important, as professors at Hampshire College are
under no obligation whatsoever to undertake an independent study with a
student. They are not rewarded in any real way therefore. They are not paid
more for doing so. Certainly they are not punished if they do not. It will, in
most cases, not be reflected poorly in their peer reviews, through which
contract renewal and extension is conducted at Hampshire College.
Therefore, supervising such a study is a net loss for a professor, for it takes
time and energy for them to do so. A student is obliged to convince the
professor that their time and efforts shall therefore be rewarded, enough to
balance the effort of their expenditure.

Likewise, a student has absolutely no bargaining power with their
professors. They only thing they have to offer to a professor is the good
feeling that comes from having facilitated good work and made a student
happy. Every professor at Hampshire College might suddenly decide not to
offer independent studies, and there would be no necessary disincentive in
place. A student must work always with this in mind.

In my experience, and from those accounts and anecdotes I have
gathered, the professors who shall most easily give independent studies fall
into three groups. First there are those who are new to Hampshire and are
full of vigor for teaching in general; may blessings be upon those of them
who don’t burn out within two years’ time! Secondly there are those who
have come to Hampshire, either right from grad school or as transfers from
another college, because of their innate support for Hampshire’s purported
mission of self-motivated learning and unorthodox inquiry. Thirdly there are
those who have been at Hampshire since such an independent mission
was truly Hampshire’s universal design; some of these are ‘founding faculty’
who have been with the school since its inception, or before.

Yet for every one of these there is at least one who holds antithetical
opinions. There are some Hampshire professors who shall unequivocally deny
independent studies to those who have not taken a class with them. Some
will deny studies to Division I students without a second thought. Some will
deny independent studies on principle, and shall not offer them at all, ever,
without regard to deservingness of student or study. Some will offer them to
a student only if they are that student’s advisor or are on that student’
committee.

A professor known to offer independent studies in quantity will likely
have already an overfull schedule from having offered them to so many
students. Approaching new professors who have not already an established
reputation in this area may prove a wise investment. Likewise approaching
older professors to test whether or not their attitudes on the subject have
changed over time.

There is the case of a friend of mine who walked into a professor’s
office on the first day of his first year, asked for and got an independent
study within ten minutes. If he wasn’t such a good friend of mine, I would
hate him absolutely. Likewise an acquaintance of mine actually completed an
independent study with a professor who was on sabbatical at the time.
Needless to say, such miracles ought not to be counted upon.

And let me say clearly that there are some professors who would like to
help, but just do not have the time, because they have commitments outside
the college, because they have too many commitments to their Div II and Div
IIIs, because they have commitments to the classes they teach, or because
they have already agreed to supervise other independent studies. Though I
must also say that many professors will say that this is the case, though it
may prove to be untrue.

Likewise there are some advisors who will not sign an independent
study form on principle. This is especially true of first year advisors. A lack of
advisorial enthusiasm can be circumvented through direct contact with
CASA, especially at the first year; the person to whom one ought to direct
questions is the Dean of First Years. If the problem continues, a student can
arrange through CASA to switch advisors. This, I might add, is precisely what
happened to me, and I lost a semester’s worth of potential indies because of
it. I had to have CASA act as my advisor for a semester, and they allowed me
to take an independent study; only as a Div Limbo was I able to find
someone to act as my advisor who was willing to so much as sign off on my
scholarly proclivities.

The entirety of this last criteria which must be met I shall call that of
Supervisory Interest. It requires, in essence, that the student do a good job
selling themselves and their idea for an indie. The student should be
prepared to bend their idea to meet the professor’s needs, both before and
after they have met with that professor and made their pitch.

One great difficulty that a student shall likely encounter is the paradox
of value versus workload. An independent study must be of the same weight
as a course to be accepted, but a professor will almost surely not have the
time to take on a third courseload’s worth of work. Therefore the student
must be prepared to demonstrate that great work shall be accomplished, all
the while requiring little work from the professor. However, the student must
allow the professor to be satisfied that they shall be able to supervise and, to
a lesser or greater extent, control the student’s work as it continues. What
results therefore is that the student must bend themselves into unusual and
unnatural contortions, the precise shape being dictated by the situation and
being different for every situation.

Another is the difficulty a student will have in being unable to
guarantee that all other courses are inappropriate for them, when there is
little way they could have even a summary knowledge of the contents of
every course taught at Hampshire, let alone in the valley as a whole.
Therefore a student ought best to approach a faculty member under the
guise of an inquiry into where they ought best to go, and end only with the
request, perhaps at a subsequent meeting, that the work be undertaken
independently and under that professor’s guidance.

A professor will quite commonly attempt to use the defense that they
are not the appropriate person to be supervising such a study as you have
pitched to them. Firstly the student must be willing to argue, based upon
their knowledge of that professor, that they are indeed an appropriate
person. Secondly they must be willing to modify their study to meet the
professor’s interests. Though once they have signed up for the study, it is
much easier to change things, a student must still be prepared to bend
themselves as they must. Thirdly the student ought, as in any negotiation, to
be prepared to argue, and to not take “no” for an answer. Be respectful at all
times, but do not be easily swayed.

I usually recommend an air, not of haggling, but of groveling. It helps
above all things if you can cry. I insist upon comporting myself with fortitude,
and it is to my great detriment in many situations I am sure. I once was
turned down by a professor for an independent study in poetry on the
grounds that she had insufficient time. A friend of mine met with the same
professor and pitched the same study some two hours later, and was
accepted easily. The difference is that she burst into tears within five
minutes.

What we are training our children to do, by rewarding and reinforcing
such behavior, I shall not speculate.

That, then, is what you must be required to prove for your pitch of an
independent study to be successful. You must come armed with a Prefatory
Definition; you must provide a mechanism for Evaluatory Equivalency; you
must show your need for Exceptional Opportunity; you must convince them
of their Supervisory Applicability; and you must conjure in them sufficient
Supervisory Interest. Consider this a checklist; I recommend following it
closely.

Thereafter you must only present the appropriate forms to Central
Records. For whatever reasons (about which I shall not speculate), many of
the people in this office seem to be quite hostile to the idea of independent
studies. I myself have been told by various employees therein that: Division
1 students cannot take independent studies; there is a per-student cap on
the number of independent studies; a student cannot take only independent
studies; a student cannot take independent studies off-campus. All of these
things are false. If you inform them of the falsity of their suppositions, they
shall eventually come to admit it themselves, though they might have to
‘check upstairs’ in the process. Do not be surprised, however, if they attempt
in this manner to dissuade you.

Upon my most recent trip to the office, I was told three of these things,
all false. I was further told that an all-indie courseload had “never been done
before,” which I am not in a position to confirm. I was finally told that a
courseload made up entirely of independent studies was “taking advantage
of a loophole” and “is not forbidden, yet.” One of the people there chuckled
and said that such a courseload was “still technically OK,” but that it
probably “would be over soon” once my example had been recognized.

Yet until that time I myself shall continue to work to secure myself
independent studies, for they are the way in which I can best pursue my
education and produce to the height of my ability. With all these things, then,
and a bit of luck, you shall soon likewise have an indie to call your own. I
myself have three for this coming semester and am working on a fourth. My
intention is to avoid the necessity of taking classes for the remainder of my
time at Hampshire. This is not perhaps something I would recommend for
everyone, but damned if I don’t think it is the best path for me.

This is precisely the information that I wish I had been given as I came
into Hampshire. In fact, it could have been useful to me as recently as six
months ago. I hope it is of help to you, to those of you at least who are post-
Tolkein enough that you are willing to lock yourself away Dwarf-like for three
months with lamp and hammer, alone, knowing that the things you shall
forge will be reward enough for your solitary efforts.

Otherwise, then, there is the old miner’s proverb:
“Gold is where you find it.”

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~ by davekov on 30 April 2009.

2 Responses to “On Securing an Independent Study at Hampshire College”

  1. As an alum from S83, who served on the College Senate during the time that the 2 course ‘option’ for Division I was compelled, your excursis on independent study expressed exactly what I feared would happen in 1984- the end of independent study for Division I. I appreciate reading the sophisticated manner in which you characterize both the reality of the situation and the means to get through it effectively. Sadly, now reading the current president’s work plan for the strategic planning exercise he posted in his blog, I fear a great educational environment will accelerate its degenerative assimilation.

    hatzlocha rabah in your continuing efforts and learning.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this!

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